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BILL PLASCHKE

Matt Kemp takes a few steps back, Dodgers a giant leap forward

Matt Kemp returns from DL and saves 6-5 win over Giants with a great catch. More important, his galvanizing presence could save Dodgers' season.

June 25, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Matt Kemp reaches up and grabs the final out to give the Dodgers a 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in his first game back from the disabled list.
Matt Kemp reaches up and grabs the final out to give the Dodgers a 6-5 win over… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Matt Kemp is back, back, back.

That's where he was running late Tuesday night, a Marco Scutaro fly ball soaring over his head, a potential come-from-ahead loss to the San Francisco Giants on his shoulders.

Matt Kemp went back, back, back before stretching and catching the fly ball over his right shoulder as he collapsed on the warning track.

BOX SCORE: Dodgers 6, San Francisco 5

With Dodger Stadium shaking in deafening delight, Kemp jumped up and punched the outfield wall with a screaming defiance.

Matt Kemp was home. For the first time in nearly a month, he was home.

Game over. Season begun?

"I've been gone for a while," Kemp said moments later. "I'm just happy to be back."

He's happy? His Dodgers teammates spilled out of the dugout in childlike glee after Kemp's catch stranded two runners on base in saving the Dodgers from another bullpen meltdown in a 6-5 victory.

It wasn't opening day, but it sounded like it. The Dodgers are still in last place, but with their lineup finally including Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier at the same time, there is suddenly hope.

"It's really scary, a scary lineup," Kemp said afterward. "I think things are picking up, good things ahead of us."

Kemp's return to the lineup for the first time since he suffered a hamstring injury May 29 was the biggest pop in the Dodgers' crackling, season-high fourth consecutive victory.

He didn't make a racket like Ramirez's go-ahead two-run rocket of a homer off the left-field foul pole in the sixth inning. He didn't soar like Mark Ellis' surprising two-run homer in the third inning.

But he sprinted home from second base on a shallow single to left in their go-ahead four-run sixth, then saved the game at its final breath, then, after scoring a TKO on the wall, leaped and high-fived half of Los Angeles on his way to the dugout.

The Dodgers' leader is indeed back. Who knows for how far back? Who knows for how long? But for now, their leader is back, and that was enough.

"He gives us a pulse in the middle of the lineup," said Ramirez.

Kemp doesn't awe like Yasiel Puig, and he doesn't consistently impress like Adrian Gonzalez, but make no mistake, he is the heartbeat of this team, and their early-season collapse has been in direct correlation with his own.

So he not only saved this game, he owned this moment, beginning in that sixth inning after he singled to left for his first hit in 28 days. Moments later, he slid across the plate after sprinting from second base on a shallow single to left field by Tim Federowicz.

The hamstring seemed fine. The pulse was back. The dugout erupted with dancing while the cheers rained upon him like confetti. The returning slugger hopped to his feet, pointed down to Federowicz at first base, then jogged into the waiting leaps and slaps and shuffles of a team that looked reborn.

When Kemp was last seen publicly in a Dodgers uniform, he seemed to lack both muscle and confidence, with just two homers and 17 RBIs in 191 at-bats.

He showed up Tuesday looking much more muscular, as if he was suddenly reneging on his odd spring-training claim that his startlingly smaller frame would be more efficient. He also showed up acting much more focused, and sounding much more intense.

"This a new season, a new Matt," he said.

The Dodgers are desperate to believe it. Plainly stated, without a new Matt, the Dodgers have no more season. Their immediate future rests on the one man whose strength and charisma can unite the clubhouse and push the team toward its enormous potential.

The language barrier hurts Puig. The infrequent work hurts Clayton Kershaw. The calmness of his demeanor hurts Gonzalez.

For better or worse, this is still Kemp's team, and the rest of their season started Tuesday night.

"Matt feels like there is absolutely no excuse, he's ready to play, ready to be himself," said Manager Don Mattingly. "We don't need Matt Kemp coming back as a rehab player, we need him coming back as Matt Kemp."

Kemp indeed says he is fine. He says the hamstring is healed. He says he won't even talk about the surgically repaired shoulder.

"My legs feel good. Shoulder feels good. Everything feels good. It's a good day to play baseball," he said.

He doesn't just feel good, he looks good. Kemp joked about it, but it's clear he used his rehabilitation to build up the muscles he'd lost during the winter.

"I feel buff, I feel really buff, my chest is getting bigger, my biceps are getting bigger. I'm just playing," he said, laughing.

He sure seemed serious Tuesday night, when Matt Kemp beat the Giants by once again being a giant.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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