At 30, Kemp shows signs of youth in second half

Veteran outfielder experiencing rejuvenation after recovering from injuries

At 30, Kemp shows signs of youth in second half

LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp had to repeat himself. And then he repeated himself again. It was as though he had just spoken a foreign language without intending to, uttering something incomprehensible even to himself. Maybe it was the first time he had said it aloud.

"I'm still learning at 30," Kemp said, then stopped, a puzzled look on his face.

"At 30," he said again -- almost with an upward inflection.

"At 30," Kemp said, louder and more confidently this time, as though he were finally certain of its validity.

Then he laughed.

It was Tuesday, Kemp's birthday -- and not just any birthday. Thirty might still seem young to the rest of the world, but in the baseball world, 30 is grizzled-veteran status.

"It just sounds old," Kemp said, still grappling with the notion of 3-0. "It's weird. Time goes by fast, man."

It goes by even faster for those who are robbed of it.

In his own mind, Kemp might still feel 26. That was, after all, the last time he was fully healthy for a season, when the chatter surrounding him was, "Is Matt Kemp the best player in the game?" rather than, "Will Matt Kemp ever be the same?"

Twenty-six was three surgeries ago -- two on the left shoulder, one on the left ankle. Twenty-six meant a .324 batting average, 126 RBIs, 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases. It meant second place for the National League Most Valuable Player Award, though many thought Kemp deserved first.

And what does 30 bring? Kemp hopes it's redemption.

Around this time one year ago, days after he turned 29, Kemp woke up unable to walk on his left ankle. He had injured it on an awkward slide at home plate that July, and he tried to play through it.

In September -- on the eve of the postseason -- Kemp could no longer play through it. He had to watch his teammates continue without him, falling two wins shy of a World Series berth.

But that was 29; this is 30. And on Wednesday night, Kemp was hopping around the Dodgers' clubhouse, no crutches necessary, dousing every teammate he came across with champagne. Los Angeles clinched the NL West title, and now Kemp is ready to make his October mark.

"That's what we all play for, is to play in the postseason," Kemp said. "Last year was bittersweet. The team did a really good job without me. I just feel like if we would've been a healthier team, we would've gone a lot longer into the playoffs."

With the postseason near, not only is Kemp finally healthy, but he's answering the questions that surrounded him throughout his slow start to this season. And he's answering them defiantly.

Through his first 51 games of the year, Kemp batted .238/.291/.398 with five home runs and 15 RBIs. He had moved out of center field, having lost a step, and there were rumors swirling that he could move out of Los Angeles entirely, his name frequent among non-waiver Trade Deadline headlines.

But then Kemp finished off the first half on a .315/.386/.476 tear. And after settling into a new position in right field, he's carried that success over into a burgeoning second half: .303/.360/.589, 16 home runs and 51 RBIs in 62 games.

From one half to the next, Kemp went from being a near easy out to a menace in the middle of the Dodgers' lineup.

"Kemp's been swinging the bat really good ... and it allows the other guys in the lineup to do well," said Padres starter Ian Kennedy, who faced the Dodgers six times this season and has seen the kind of difference Kemp's resurgence has made.

"It makes the lineup a lot deeper," Kennedy said. "If you have some guys struggling, it allows you to attack a bit more."

But pitchers have to be wary of attacking Kemp now. He's been particularly potent in the final month of the season, batting .306 and slugging .659 with eight home runs and a Major League-leading 22 RBIs in 22 games.

It wasn't by accident that Kemp found his stroke at the plate. He spent hours and hours with hitting coach Mark McGwire, tweaking his mechanics midseason.

"I think the biggest change Matt's made is straighten up," manager Don Mattingly said. "I think you see him taller, you see his feet a little more straight. A guy that dives, striding into the plate, he limits himself with what he can do. ... As a hitter, when you cross into the plate -- when you dive -- you block yourself off to certain parts of the plate that you can't handle, that you can't get to.

"To me, with Matt straightening up, he was able to get through the ball a lot better and create more bat speed, and then backspin."

Mattingly has been asked on multiple occasions if he thinks Kemp is back to his 26-year-old form, and the manager has said that he doesn't think it's fair to compare players to what they were in the past. Mattingly said players change every year.

Kemp himself doesn't think he's quite there yet -- especially in terms of his speed. He has just eight stolen bases this year, and he has been caught five times. But Kemp also doesn't think he's far from his 2011 form. His '14 season has justified that.

"I knew it was in there," Kemp said. "It just takes time. I had no Spring Training. I honestly didn't know what my body was going to feel like. But as a baseball player, you just have to learn to grind through all those battles that you have to, as far as injuries and things like that.

"And definitely, my game has changed a lot. I'm not running as much, I can't really run as much as I want to, but you have to try to find a way to be successful when you're on the field, and I'm still learning how to do that."

Still learning. At 30.

Michael Lananna is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.