The procession of Dodgers awaiting the arrival of Matt Kemp stretched from the on-deck circle to the end of the dugout. As he rounded third, in the moments after launching a go-ahead, three-run homer in the eighth inning of a 3-2 victory over Arizona, Kemp slammed his hands together and pointed skyward. Then he disappeared into the arms of his teammates, a group now tied for first place in the National League West.
There were elaborate handshakes from Manny Machado and Justin Turner, the runners Kemp brought home after taking Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley deep. There was a bear hug from Enrique Hernandez and a bro hug from Yasiel Puig. At the top step of the dugout, Dave Roberts pounded Kemp’s chest, before the rest of the group engulfed him.
“It was special,” Roberts said. “Matt’s had a lot of huge hits in his career, especially as a Dodger. This has got to rate somewhere near the top.”
Trailing all evening, desperate for offense, the Dodgers (74-62) swiped another victory from Arizona with an eighth-inning homer. The result put the team in position to move into sole possession of the division lead with a victory in Sunday’s series finale.
Kemp came to the plate in the midst of a lengthy skid. After homering 15 times in the first half, he had gone deep only three times since the All-Star break. As he stepped in against Bradley, his last home run had taken flight Aug. 17. Bradley offered Kemp a chance to break the streak.
Bradley opened the at-bat with a pair of 95-mph fastballs. Both blazed over the plate for strikes. Up in the count, Bradley tried a breaking ball. The switch backfired. He let a 1-2 curve float over the middle. Kemp destroyed the pitch.
In the process, Kemp took Clayton Kershaw off the hook for a potential hard-luck loss. It also set the stage for closer Kenley Jansen to record his second save in a row after four ugly outings in late August.
In the finale, rookie Walker Buehler will try to top Kershaw, who completed seven innings for the fourth start in a row. He was penalized by a pair of solo home runs. He kept Arizona quiet otherwise.
“This was a big win for us tonight,” Kershaw said. “We’ll build off this.”
The matchup with Arizona was a test for Kershaw. He had pitched up to his own standard since returning from the disabled list in June, with a 2.15 earned-run average in 12 starts. In his previous three starts, Kershaw had struck out 25 batters in 23 innings while permitting five runs.
Kershaw had excelled by altering his patterns. After years of pounding hitters inside with fastballs and finishing them with sliders, he had begun expanding to the outer half of the plate. The alteration came as his fastball velocity decreased, and the gap between the speed of his heater and slider had shrunk.
“The hitters are going to let you know what you need to do to get them out,” Kershaw said. “Pitchers, myself included, we’re pretty stubborn by nature, so we’re not going to change unless we have to. It doesn’t feel like I’ve changed, but obviously people tell me that I have.”
Yet in Saturday’s second inning he was punished for utilizing a familiar sequence. The first pitch of the inning was a 90-mph fastball to Eduardo Escobar. The ball traveled inside, where Escobar showed the ability for damage. The solo shot put the Dodgers in a hole, but it did not set Kershaw on his heels.
Kershaw responded to the homer by retiring the next 12 hitters he faced. He generated soft contact during his second turn through the order. He finished the fifth by whiffing Jeff Mathis with an 89-mph fastball. Kershaw was rolling — but his offense was stagnant.
Arizona countered Kershaw with Patrick Corbin, a left-hander who may be the most talented member of its staff. Corbin had limited the Dodgers to two runs in three starts this season. The Dodgers banked on the upgrades made to their roster since May; Corbin had dominated a lineup which did not include Turner, Machado, Brian Dozier and new addition David Freese.
The offense could not mount a threat against Corbin until the fourth. After Freese got hit by a slider, Escobar fumbled a grounder from Puig, which left Freese on third and Puig on second with one out. To the plate stepped Austin Barnes, who had singled in the second for only his 27th hit of the season. He would not notch No. 28 in his next at-bat.
Barnes could not even make a productive out. He tapped a grounder toward the mound. Corbin pounced and caught Freese in a rundown. Kershaw grounded out to end the inning. Corbin barreled through the top of the Dodgers’ lineup in the fifth, striking out Turner and Machado, but pushed his pitch count to 96.
The night before, the Dodgers punished Arizona manager Torey Lovullo for leaving Zack Greinke in to face Turner in the eighth inning. Lovullo was more aggressive with his bullpen management Saturday. He pulled Corbin for pinch hitter Christian Walker to start the sixth.
The move paid off. Walker boomed a 90-mph fastball over the left-field fence. The Diamondbacks had accumulated only two hits against Kershaw. They made them count.
Kershaw pitched around a single by Ketel Marte in the seventh. After Chris Owings flied out to end the inning, Kershaw lumbered into his dugout. He stopped by Roberts’ perch long enough to learn his night was over. Kershaw had thrown only 91 pitches, but his spot in the order was up in the bottom of the inning, and the Dodgers needed runs.
The runs did not arrive until the eighth, when Lovullo went to Bradley. Turner slipped a one-out single through the right side of the infield. Machado hung with Bradley for 10 pitches, coming back from an 0-2 count to walk. “The at-bat that Manny put on Archie was incredible,” Turner said.
It was up to Kemp. He was unsure where his home run ranked among his career highlights. But he knew it belonged near the top.