Kemp, Kuo electrify Dodgers late for win
Center fielder homers in eighth; lefty fans six in two innings
PHOENIX -- The Dodgers hit the mathematical halfway point of the season Sunday with a 3-1 win over the D-backs, led by their pair of All-Stars, their pair of All-Star snubs and their player still trying to harness his All-Star talent.
The latter is Matt Kemp, whose two-run, tiebreaking home run was his third blast in the last four games, continuing an offensive rampage that started soon after his three-game lineup benching ended.
Andre Ethier singled in the other Dodgers run and Jonathan Broxton picked up his 17th save only hours after learning they would represent their club in the 2010 MLB All-Star Game at Anaheim. The Dodgers are 10-2 against Arizona and 23-6 against the West this year.
But this win would not have happened if not for the performance of the two Dodgers many in the clubhouse feel should be All-Stars but aren't, leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal and left-handed reliever Hong-Chih Kuo.
Furcal doubled, walked and scored twice. Kuo, the bridge between starter Chad Billingsley and Broxton, pitched two innings and recorded six of the 16 Arizona strikeouts, the most for a Dodgers opponent all season.
Catcher A.J. Ellis said Kuo didn't just make life miserable for D-backs hitters.
"The umpire [Paul Emmel] said, 'This guy's got nasty stuff. Give me a heads up when he drops that slider in there,' " said Ellis, who was giving Russell Martin the day off. "Today was as good a two innings as I've caught in the big leagues. He had all four pitches working."
Maybe the reason Kuo is better than ever is that he's added a slurve and changeup to a repertoire that had been limited to a fastball and slider back when he babied an elbow that had undergone four operations. He has a 1.03 ERA, 36 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings and left-handers are 0-for-30 with 16 strikeouts against him.
"You look around the league, you don't see lefties throwing 95-plus," said Ellis. "It's just an uncomfortable at-bat."
By contrast, Kemp seems to be having comfortable at-bats since rejoining the lineup after a three-game benching for a dugout argument with bench coach Bob Schaefer. Since returning to the outfield when Manny Ramirez was injured Tuesday night, Kemp is 9-for-22 with three homers and eight RBIs.
His homer came off Aaron Heilman after starters Billingsley and Dan Haren had left the game tied, Billingsley having pitched six innings, Haren seven.
Billingsley, an All-Star last year, is pitching like one again, drawing his second no-decision quality start after returning from the disabled list and a strained right groin.
"We made one mistake," said new Arizona manager Kirk Gibson. "Aaron was trying to go in on him. If you watched the location, the previous pitch was right there; it tied [Kemp] up, and he pulled it. So we'll work on our execution."
The one Kemp slugged to right-center with one out in the eighth inning followed a Furcal walk and Kemp thrust his first in the air when the ball cleared the fence.
"It was great. Everybody pulls for this guy," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That was a huge home run."
Furcal also scored the earlier Dodgers run in the sixth, leading off with a double and scoring on Ethier's RBI single.
"That's where my strength is," Kemp said of his opposite-field homers. "I'm using my hands, that's all I need to do to be successful and not pull off."
Torre said he's noticed more patient at-bats by Kemp in the last few days and Kemp agreed.
"At times I'm still too aggressive and swinging at bad pitches, but other than that, I'm more relaxed," he said. "I've still got a lot of work to do. Still not where I want to be, but I'm getting better."
After a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger season in 2009, the natural expectations were that Kemp would be joining Either on the National League All-Star team. A year ago, Kemp was a finalist in the All-Star Game Final Vote. While he leads the team with 15 homers, his .268 average is 52 points below Ethier and he already has 91 strikeouts, 32 more than the next closest Dodger (Casey Blake).
"It could have been better," Kemp said of his first half. "I think I took a month off from the team. It's only halfway and there's still a lot of baseball left. I've got time to make up for a bad month."
The only bad month Furcal had was when he was sidelined by a hamstring pull. He's hitting .338 and .447 since June 15, but didn't get the All-Star call.
"Disappointed?" he said, repeating a question. "Why? No. It's OK. They pick the right people and nothing I can do with that. I just keep doing the way I'm playing right now and help the team win."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.