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T.J. SIMERS

His average is sinking, but Dodgers' Matt Kemp remains stand-up guy

The Dodgers' Matt Kemp is battling a huge slump and it's affecting the team. But it hasn't kept him from staying positive and acting like a team leader.

August 21, 2012|T.J. Simers

I thought it was time for the superstar test.

So I asked to speak to Matt Kemp before the Dodgers game Tuesday, knowing he's 0 for 19 and probably as excited about talking to the media right now as he is returning to the dugout after striking out.

But Kemp is the acknowledged team leader, so I wanted to find out if he was still acting like one.

I wanted to see if the spirited slugger had gone moody on everyone, upset as some players get when going into the dumper and maybe hiding rather than opening themselves to questioning.

Now it's just by happenstance that quotes painted above the lockers in the Dodgers' clubhouse fell where they are, but the one above Kemp from Roy Campanella reads: "You got to be a man to play baseball for a living but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you."

It's as if Campanella was thinking of a player just like Kemp when he said it, but I wanted to see if it still applied.

Well, as superstars go, this one showed up — and that was after being warned I would be there with tape recorder running.

"Same old, same old," says Kemp when arriving, smiling and looking nothing like a guy who went 0 for Atlanta and then hitless again Monday against the Giants.

"Sure, I'm frustrated, but that's why we have guys like Hanley Ramirez here to pick me up when I'm not doing well. I want to help the team win and I'm trying, but I'm going through a tough stretch right now."

The mention of Ramirez is significant, because Ramirez and Kemp have bonded, and it's always a good sign when the team's two best hitters are rooting for each other.

The folks on Twitter, though, are something else, says Kemp. "I read my Twitter right now and it's, 'Oh, you're pathetic,' and this and that. Dang, I hear you.

"It's actually funny. I know the fans want to see me do good, and I am going to do good."

But doesn't the criticism sting?

"They don't get to me," he says. "The only thing that really gets to me is losing, especially when I feel I'm responsible for it."

Kemp has been so bad recently his average has plummeted to .333, and when you say that out loud it sounds downright foolish.

If you are hitting .333 after going

0 for 19 you really are a superstar. It's also as good an indication as any that Kemp's slump won't last much longer.

But first he has to get a hit, and he says, "No question there are times when I'm mad at myself the way things are going, but I've snapped out of it knowing our team needs me."

As badly as the Dodgers need his bat, they are a group that feeds on Kemp's upbeat and positive attitude.

"He hasn't lost that little boy in him, that's for sure," says Manager Don Mattingly. "That's part of the growth of Matt Kemp. He's serious enough to know he wants to do well and he's not going to laugh off 0 for 19. But he's no moper; he's someone who is always going to be into the game.

"And it's a tough game mentally. You hear people talk about this being a serious time of year. But you've still got to be a kid; it's like watching the Little League World Series at this time of year. How do little kids play? They do so with a freedom and looseness."

That's Kemp, still bouncing off the dugout walls, but now 0 for 20 with a flyout to right in the first, waiting on the ball as he said he would before the game and during batting practice, but the ball not falling.

And he's not the only Dodger struggling.

Andrew Bynum goes to Philadelphia and Joe Blanton comes here, and it's not a fair exchange. Next to Andruw Jones, I've never seen a crowd turn so quickly on a Dodger as Blanton.

Maybe it's because it looks as if he's throwing batting practice to the Giants in a critical game, the Dodgers trailing, 4-0. Maybe it's because most of the fans are here to celebrate the greatness of Fernando Valenzuela on his bobblehead night and they don't see a resemblance.

Whatever, the Dodgers need a lift. But make that 0 for 21 now as Kemp hits into a double play.

For the record, he's still got a long way to go before the Juan Uribe comparisons start.

"I know I can hit," Kemp is saying before the game, which is a lot different from Blanton if he says, "I know I can pitch."

Mattingly says the most important thing now is for Kemp to do nothing drastic.

"We all know what's online, but that's where Matt is so great," Mattingly says. "He can play with a smile on his face. I couldn't do that. I had to grind. I heard the fans, but I had to be locked in and wouldn't have known how to do it like Matt.

"You see the joy in Matt when he plays and that's a gift much like the one Magic Johnson had as a player."

OK, so it's superstar time, Kemp batting for the third time and now with the bases loaded.

What a way to break out of a slump. What a way to rock Dodger Stadium and demoralize the Giants.

And the ball Kemp hits has some hope attached, like a Kobe three at the end of a quarter to tie the score. But Kemp's shot to right field is caught, and the Dodgers get only a run on the sacrifice fly.

Uribe leads off the ninth, and what are the chances he gets a hit before Kemp? Uribe's last hit came on July 25. Uribe strikes out, bringing up Kemp.

He singles, a moral victory and a chance to pass on a kind word via twitter@TheRealMattKemp to let him know there was never a doubt.

But how about winning next time?

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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