Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp gestures to the dugout after hitting a… (Norm Hall / Getty Images )
PHOENIX — The champagne is still on hold for at least another day, but the Dodgers bounced out of their clubhouse here Tuesday night happily soaked in a different sort of bubbly.
There's nothing like being sprayed with a vintage Matt Kemp.
One ball was smacked into the left-field corner. Another ball was blasted off the wall above the center-field fence. There was a line drive up the middle. There was a grounder past the shortstop.
One moment Kemp was standing on second base, raising his hands into the air, pointing those hands at the Dodgers' dugout. The next moment he was standing on first base slapping those hands together in joyful relief.
In his final moment Tuesday, when Kemp was pulled off the Chase Field diamond in the seventh inning to protect his still-tender ankle, he was enveloped by teammates with hugs, back slaps and welcome laughs. After a 58-day absence from the lineup card, Kemp's name showed up with exclamation points, his bat accounting for four hits and three RBIs while helping to whittle the Dodgers' magic number to two in a 9-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"That's me, that's what I do," a grinning Kemp said afterward. "To be able to do it in my first game back is a pretty good sign."
As usual with Matt Kemp, the three words trumpeting his dreamy return must be accompanied by three words rooted in reality.
He is back. Will it last?
Are Kemp's shoulder and hamstring problems really gone? Will the sprained ankle truly be healed any time this season? Will his betraying body finally hold up this time? Who knows? There are no guarantees about the rest of his season but, for now, the Dodgers will bathe in the possibility that they will march into October with their former team leader back in the center of things.
"It would be huge," Manager Don Mattingly said. "Matt is Matt."
Don't say they don't need him. They need him. The three outfielders who sometimes brilliantly put this team in playoff position -- Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford -- are all hobbled or hurting. If Kemp can stay strong, he will have a place to play, and the Dodgers will be better because of it, his presence stretching an already rich batting order deeper into the minds of even the boldest of pitchers.
Those who believe the Dodgers can have too many outfielders are the same types who believe they can come out of spring training with too many pitchers. Something always happens. If he's good enough, there will be room enough.
The problem with Kemp and Tuesday night, of course, was that we've been here before. No Dodger has returned from the disabled list with bigger fireworks this season, yet no Dodger seems to burn out as quickly.
Since underdoing shoulder surgery and scary weight loss in the off-season, Kemp has not been the consistently dominant player of recent years, with brilliant flashes like the ones he showed Tuesday night quickly disappearing beneath mounds of twisted muscles and sore joints.
Mattingly admitted he's holding his breath, and taking it slow, and would not even guarantee Kemp would be in the lineup Wednesday.
"He swung the bat good, but we'll just see," Mattingly said. "We'll probably have to be careful with him."
When Kemp returned in late June after his first trip to the disabled list, he had two homers and seven RBIs in 10 games and everyone was excited . . . until he returned to the disabled list with more problems in his left shoulder.
When he returned in late July after that second trip to the disabled list, he had a homer and three RBIs in his first game and the Dodgers were thrilled . . . until he immediately returned to the shelf with an ankle sprain that eventually became a hamstring problem.
His rehabilitation this month from his third DL stint had been a nightmare, as he went 0 for 18 at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga while seemingly flailing at every pitch. His first plate appearance here Tuesday night was more of the same, as he ended a Dodgers loss by striking out with the tying and go-ahead runs on base.
When a strong running effort before Tuesday's game convinced the Dodgers to finally start him, the expectations were not great. Those expectations lasted all of three pitches, as Kemp hammered a first-inning fastball by Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin into the left-field corner to drive in two runs
Two innings later, he hit a 3-and-1 pitch high above the 407-foot marker on the center field fence. If this were in Dodger Stadium, it would have been a homer, and Kemp smacked his hands in frustration, but he was smiling when he did it.
"Just to be able to compete again, to be out there in a baseball game again . . . it feels real good," he said.
He capped his night with two singles and another RBI, ending the Dodgers' angst over losing nine of their previous 12 games, and the calming pregame words of pitcher Clayton Kershaw seemed prescient.
"I don't think we're worried about our ability, just a matter of getting our right lineup out there," he said.
It is unknown where or how Matt Kemp will fit in that lineup. But if he's in there, it's the right lineup.
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