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Matt Kemp is having a first-class season on a last-place team

Slugger is putting up MVP numbers as the Dodgers continue to sink in the NL West. Like Andre Dawson in 1987, he is staying focused and consistent.

July 02, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp reacts after being caught in a rundown against the Minnesota Twins on Monday. The Dodgers may be struggling, but Kemp isn't.
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp reacts after being caught in a rundown… (Carlos Gonzalez / MCT )

Matt Kemp is poised to join a select baseball fraternity. Membership requires a player's statistics pile up, along with his team's losses. Superstars on division-leading teams or contenders need not apply.

The club includes Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Kansas City's Zack Greinke, Cy Young Award winners who both pitched for last-place teams. Vladimir Guerrero was a member as one of the National League's most feared hitters for six mostly dreadful teams in Montreal.

Alex Rodriguez spent three years on board with Texas, failing to lift the Rangers out of last place in the American League West despite hitting at least 47 homers and driving in at least 118 runs in each of his seasons there.

Kemp's numbers, and his team's free fall in the standings, make the Dodgers center fielder the newest candidate for inclusion. The Dodgers are in last place in the NL West and are on pace for their worst season since finishing 71-91 in 2005.

Don't blame Kemp. Coming into the weekend, he ranked among the major league leaders in batting average (.331), home runs (22), runs batted in (63), on-base percentage (.415), slugging percentage (.628) and stolen bases (22), putting him on pace for career highs in each category except batting average.

"It would definitely be way more fun if we were winning more games," Kemp said of his success, "but it's still early and we've got a long ways to go."

Andre Dawson also knows something about making the most of a season gone awry. The Hall of Fame outfielder became the first player to win a most-valuable-player award for a last-place team, hitting .287 with a career-high 49 homers and a major league-leading 137 RBIs for the Chicago Cubs in 1987.

Dawson came to the Cubs that year after 10 seasons in Montreal, letting his new team dictate his $500,000 salary after turning down an offer for twice that much per year from the Expos. He called Montreal's proposal "an embarrassment" considering his accomplishments playing on artificial turf for the small-market franchise, where he had twice been runner-up in MVP balloting.

"If I was going to take a cut in pay," Dawson recalled in a telephone interview, "it was going to be somewhere I would enjoy the game."

The grass was greener at Wrigley Field, in part because it was real. And it wasn't as if the Cubs lacked for star power. There was second baseman Ryne Sandberg and All-Star pitchers Rick Sutcliffe and Lee Smith in addition to Greg Maddux, who was in his first full major league season.

Chicago was in first place in the NL East as late as May 21 and climbed to a season-high 10 games over .500 three days later. But the team fell to fourth place by the end of a second five-game losing streak in June. By the end of the following month, the Cubs were in next-to-last place.

Dawson said he could sense management giving up on the season when it traded veteran players. But while the team plummeted, Dawson's success remained steady. He hit three homers in a game against Philadelphia at Wrigley Field, crushed a grand slam to beat St. Louis at Busch Stadium and drove in seven runs against Houston.

Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, who was then a baseball operations assistant under Cubs President Dallas Green, said Dawson "was focused to the point that the standings never made a difference to him." He hit his 49th homer in his final Wrigley Field at-bat, with fans chanting "M-V-P!"

"There were a lot of rumors about me being involved in an MVP race," Dawson recalled. "Knowing that, the numbers have to keep accumulating on a daily basis. I tried not think too much about the losses and tried to continue to stay consistent like I had been in the previous months."

Kemp can relate. The only Dodger to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases before the All-Star break besides Davey Lopes in 1979 has been heating up as the season approaches its midpoint. His .375 batting average, .472 on-base percentage and .795 slugging percentage in June were all season bests for one month.

One year after a public spat with Colletti over the GM's critical comments regarding the outfielder's baserunning and defense set the tone for a disappointing season, Kemp, 26, is on the verge of a breakthrough. Not that there haven't been some trying moments playing for a team considerably closer to last place than to first.

When the Dodgers lost to Detroit last week on an over-the-shoulder catch by center fielder Austin Jackson, Kemp threw his batting helmet across the field and placed his hands on his head in disgust. Later, he declined to speak with reporters.

But he's mostly remained upbeat, singing as he raced up the dugout steps last Sunday on the way to the field before a game against the Angels. In the clubhouse afterward, he walked past a throng of reporters surrounding Tony Gwynn Jr.'s empty locker after Gwynn had driven in the winning run.

"Who ya'll waiting on?" Kemp asked with a straight face.

A moment later, Kemp broke into a wide smile.

"I'm just playing," he said.

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