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Matt Kemp pulls Dodgers out of a ditch in 3-2 win over Cardinals

Matt Kemp pulls Dodgers out of a ditch in 3-2 win over Cardinals
Dodgers right fielder Matt Kemp (27) is drenched in water after getting a shower from teammate Yasiel Puig (66) as they celebrate their 3-2 victory over the Cardinals. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was a swing for the memories. It was a swing for their lives.

Moments after another dreadful Dodgers pitching collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday night, Matt Kemp lifted all of Dodger Stadium at the end of a stick with an eighth-inning home run that might still be floating somewhere above Pasadena.

It was a swing that continued the rescuing of a career. It was the swing that saved a season.

The man who sat out last season's playoffs because of an ankle injury didn't miss this one. The man who was benched earlier this season and moved out of his beloved center field came swaggering out of the dugout to land a thunderous blow that soared with redemption.

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Kemp's home run against Pat Neshak through the late-evening heat did more than simply give the Dodgers a 3-2 victory over the Cardinals to equal their best-of-five National League division series at one game apiece. It gave the Dodgers life just moments after many thought all was lost.

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In the top half of the inning, Matt Carpenter had tied the score with a two-run home run against J.P Howell, who had questionably relieved Zack Greinke even though the Dodgers starter had thrown seven scoreless innings.

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When Kemp went to the plate in the bottom of the inning, a full Dodger Stadium crowd was quietly smoldering not only after spending several hours in 90-degree heat, but because they knew that if the Dodgers lost this game, they would face the near-impossible task of surviving the series with the next two games in St. Louis.

"This was a must-win for us'' Kemp said.

On his fourth pitch from Neshek, he turned it into a must-see for Dodgers fans by turning on a slider and driving it deep over the left-field fence. The roaring cheers were equal parts joy and relief. After Kemp had quickly rounded the bases, he disappeared into a sea of blue in the dugout as the stadium continued to rock.

There were no curtain calls. The game was not yet complete. Kenley Jansen took the mound to retire the side in the ninth inning, ending the game and finally allowing Kemp to truly celebrate.

Yes, while doing the on-field postgame television interviews, he was doused with a sports drink, giving him a giant orange grin.

"This was big right here, man,'' Kemp said. "On this stage, in the playoffs, we continue to grind.''

This was the same Kemp who was the center of a midsummer controversy when his then-agent Dave Stewart intimated he wanted to be traded somewhere that he could play center field.

"This is where I want to be,'' he shouted to the roar of the fans afterward.

This is where the Dodgers want him, as his health and big swing returned at the same time late in the season. Matt Kemp is now, finally, close to being the Matt Kemp who should have been the NL most valuable player in 2011.

"It's been a tough couple of years for Kemp, it's taken him a lot longer to get back,'' Manager Don Mattingly said.

Shortly before the home run, it was a tough couple of moments for Mattingly, who, at the start of the eighth inning, replaced the brilliant Greinke after 103 pitches even thought he was throwing a two-hitter with his team leading, 2-0. A night earlier, in the series opener, Mattingly had left ace Clayton Kershaw in the game in the seventh inning after several hours of 90-degree heat because the Dodgers ace was better than any of the team's wildly inconsistent middle-relief options. Kershaw proceeded to blow a five-run lead and the Dodgers lost, 10-9, amid some criticism of the Dodgers manager.

He was not criticized in this space. It was obvious he had no choice but to leave Kershaw in the game, just as it should have been obvious that he should have left Greinke in this game at least until Jansen could have shown up for a four-out save. Instead, this time, he went to Howell, and got burned, until Kemp hit the healing home run.

Said Kemp: "When J.P. gave up that homer we knew we had to back him up ... that's what we do, back each other up.''

Said Howell: ''It was an emotional roller coaster.''

Up, down, up again, the Dodgers fly to St. Louis on Sunday to continue the battle Monday.

"I got a good swing on it,'' Kemp said, and did he ever.

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