SAN FRANCISCO — There are days when it looks as if none of it ever happened — the shoulder injury late last season, the operation that followed, the early-season slump this year, the three stints on the disabled list that cost him 79 games.
Those are the days everything feels possible, the ones that make Don Mattingly remind everyone, as he did earlier this week, “He is Matt Kemp, you know?”
Those are the days Kemp smiles and laughs and talks about why he thinks he’s close to being the player he used to be.
But every day isn’t like that for Kemp.
“Kind of in and out still,” Mattingly said.
Kemp was in and out early in Thursday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, getting on base with a walk and grounding into a double play.
Kemp is an admittedly emotional player, but his reactions to his recent triumphs and failures have been tempered. He has played baseball long enough to know that nothing meaningful ever reveals itself in one game.
So, every day, Kemp steps into a batting cage with hitting coach Mark McGwire and takes swing after swing, hoping that old feeling will come back and stay with him.
This is what Kemp has been doing all season.
He did it in spring training. He did it after he strained a hamstring in late May. He did it after he irritated his surgically repaired shoulder in early July. And he’s doing it now.
But this time it’s different. He no longer has time, something he acknowledged when he said, “I’m trying not to waste any at-bats.”
The Dodgers have three games remaining in the regular season. Four days after the regular-season finale, they will open their National League division series.
Kemp would be facing even longer odds to regain his old form in a week if not for a decision the Dodgers made in late August.
Five games into his latest minor league rehabilitation assignment with the Dodgers’ Class-A affiliate, the team asked him to go to its spring-training complex rather than remain with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in the California League playoffs.
“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” Kemp said.
With some of their minor league pitchers still throwing at the Arizona facility, the Dodgers were able to set up simulated games and get Kemp as many at-bats as he wanted — eight, 10, 12, whatever.
“It turned out really, really well,” Kemp said. “You get 15 at-bats a day, you can definitely get a groove. It doesn’t matter who’s pitching. You can start to find your swing. I’m glad they came up with that idea.”
Kemp liked the routine so much that he said he might incorporate it into his spring-training regimen in the future.
Over his final week in Arizona, he estimated that he took 100 at-bats.
Kemp was activated from the disabled list on Sept. 16.
His uneven play since then illustrates the challenge he faces.
In his first start, on Sept. 17, he had four hits, including two doubles.
Tuesday, in a 2-1 victory over the Giants, he hit his first home run since his return, a solo shot to left-center against three-time All-Star Matt Cain.
However, between those two games, he was two for 12 with five strikeouts.
“I’m sure it’s day to day with him; some days better than others, certain matchups,” Mattingly said.
In addition to making sure Kemp gets enough bats over the next three days, Mattingly faces the challenge of making sure he doesn’t get too many. A little more than a week ago, Kemp couldn’t run the bases at full speed.
The Dodgers can’t afford to lose Kemp again, not now with Andre Ethier sidelined by shin splints and possibly unavailable for the division series.
So, Mattingly holds his breath and hopes for the best.
“This is a guy that if you’d seen him a couple years ago, a lot of people would tell you he was the best player in the game, or one of them,” Mattingly said. “Until he got hurt last year, we saw a lot of the same thing. Is he back to that, feeling that comfortable and that confident? I don’t know about that, but to get a healthy Matt Kemp that we could play every day would be a nice thing for us.”