WASHINGTON — The way Matt Kemp played last year in his MVP-caliber season revealed the depths of his talent. The way Kemp has played this month, with his left shoulder presumably hurting and his timing at the plate noticeably off, has displayed the depths of his character.
Belting a ninth-inning solo home run, Kemp broke a tie with the Washington Nationals and lifted the Dodgers to a 7-6 victory Wednesday in a game they appeared destined to lose.
The Dodgers had already dropped the first game of their doubleheader at Nationals Park, 3-1. They had a six-run lead in the second game and blew it in a ghastly six-run eighth inning against the National League East leaders.
"That would be a devastating way to lose," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said.
A second loss Wednesday would have dropped them 21/2 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second of two wild-card spots. They also would have been passed in the standings by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Kemp didn't let it happen, driving an 0-2 fastball by Nationals closer Tyler Clippard over the center-field wall.
The home run was only the second of the month for Kemp and his first since Sept. 2.
"He's our guy," said Josh Beckett, the Dodgers' starting pitcher in the second game. "I think a lot of the guys will feed off that, too. Him coming through with an 0-2 count on him — it's not a good situation to hit balls hard. He found a way to get it done."
Beckett told Kemp the Dodgers would ride him into the postseason.
Kemp's response: "That's fine with me."
Kemp entered the second game batting .123 over his last 14 games. The slump was preceded by a violent crash into the outfield wall in Colorado that bruised his left shoulder and forced him to miss a few games.
"I don't think he'll tell anybody this, but I don't think he's feeling 100%," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "There are a couple of things that are still lingering there. He's battling through it, being the team leader that he is."
Four days earlier, Kemp's spectacular defensive effort in a win over the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium pushed Mattingly to the brink of tears.
"It really chokes me up," Mattingly said at the time. "That's total not wanting to lose."
In the three-plus weeks since Beckett was traded to the Dodgers from the Boston Red Sox, he said he has been impressed with how Kemp conducts himself in the clubhouse. "Every day before the game, he's in here talking to the younger guys," Beckett said.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Kemp was excitedly telling his teammates, "We have two today!"
"Like it's a good thing, you know?" Beckett said. "Not everybody looks at a doubleheader being a good thing. He's pumping guys up for that. I certainly appreciate that, pitching the second end of the doubleheader, because it's not easy on these guys to go out there and play 18 innings."
The first game played out like many others for the Dodgers in recent weeks, as they collected nine hits but only one run.
The offense came to life in the second game, which would have been pitched by All-Star fireballer Stephen Strasburg had the Nationals not decided to shut him down for the season. Strasburg is in his first full season back from reconstructive elbow surgery.
The Dodgers pounded his replacement, John Lannan, for three runs in the third inning and three more in the fourth.
Beckett held the Nationals to two hits over seven innings. Using the Nationals' aggression against them, he went into the eighth inning with a pitch count of only 68.
But Beckett gave up a leadoff home run to Michael Morse. Two batters later, he served up a two-run homer by Steve Lombardozzi that made it 6-3.
Randy Choate and Ronald Belisario couldn't stop the Nationals, as Belisario gave up a two-run, bases-loaded single to Morse that tied the score, 6-6.
Kemp said he was unfazed. "That happens in baseball," he said. "You just try to find a way to win a game."