The first hint came when Matt Kemp reported to spring training 40 pounds lighter and unencumbered by the shoulder, hamstring, knee and ankle injuries that slowed him in recent years. The next came when Kemp, the 33-year-old outfielder acquired from Atlanta in December, stepped into the batting cage.
“It was the bat speed, the way the ball came off the bat, the sound it made,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You know the production possibility is there. Then, it’s about getting an opportunity, and he created that for himself.”
The Kemp trade was primarily a cost-cutting move for the Dodgers, who sent the bloated contracts of Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Adrian Gonzalez to the Braves so they could drop their 2018 payroll below the $197-million luxury-tax threshold. Most expected Kemp to be traded before the season.
Kemp, who played his first nine years (2006-14) with the Dodgers before being traded to San Diego and then Atlanta, had other ideas.
He won the left-field job, got off to a hot start and did not stop hitting, his .317 average, .905 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 15 home runs and team-leading 57 runs batted in before Sunday earning Kemp a starting spot on the National League All-Star team.
Kemp, an All-Star in 2011 and 2012, was voted into the game by fans. Closer Kenley Jansen, who is second in the NL with 24 saves, was selected by players to his third consecutive All-Star team.
Infielder Max Muncy, with a team-leading 20 home runs and 1.017 OPS, is one of five players on the NL final fan vote to elect the last player on the 32-man roster. Ross Stripling (7-2, 2.22 earned-run average) wasn’t selected but is a replacement candidate if any starters are unable to participate.
After playing three seasons for the rebuilding Braves and Padres, Kemp has thrived on a club that reached the seventh game of the World Series in 2017. He has a major league-leading .438 average (28 for 64) with runners in scoring position.
“When any player is healthy, they play better, and when you’re not winning or playing for a championship, that takes a toll on you,” Roberts said. “For him, things are aligned right now. He’s in great shape, he’s more consistent with his workouts, we’re giving him days off his feet, and he’s performing.”
Jansen was not healthy in the first three weeks, a hamstring injury and some mechanical issues sapping the velocity of his usually devastating cut fastball. The right-hander had an 8.10 ERA and converted two of four save opportunities in seven games through April 17.
Jansen converted 22 of his next 23 save opportunities and fashioned a 1.26 ERA in 33 games, striking out 38 and walking seven in 35 2/3 innings to lower his season ERA to 2.34.
“To be honest, this one feels more special than the first two,” Jansen said. “I had a very slow April. I took all that criticism, put it on my shoulders and let it motivate me. I turned my season around, and it’s awesome to be an All-Star today.”
The Dodgers, mindful of Jansen’s 71 appearances in 2016 and 65 in 2017, minimized the 6-foot-5, 275-pound closer’s workload in spring training. Jansen was not sharp in early April.
“He and Rick [Honeycutt, pitching coach] had some conversations, looked at video, but I think it was one of those things where he’s a big-bodied guy and it took him some time to get into rhythm and get his body going for the season.”
Walker Buehler, who sat out most of the last month because of a tiny rib fracture, threw a five-inning, 75-pitch simulated game with Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor and Chase Utley batting. Buehler’s fastball touched 97 mph. “Physically, everything felt pretty normal,” Buehler said. Roberts said Buehler will throw a bullpen Wednesday and start one of next weekend’s games against the Angels. … Rich Hill’s stiff neck loosened up enough for him to throw a 17-pitch bullpen workout Sunday. The left-hander, injured on an awkward head-first slide into the plate Wednesday, expects to start in San Diego on Tuesday.