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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Matt Kemp has recaptured his loveable status with Los Angeles Dodgers fans, shedding the sour vibes of last year's injury-riddled season. Kemp soaked in the love on Saturday night after his eighth-inning home run vaulted the Dodgers to a 3-2 win over St. Louis and tied their National League Division Series at 1-1.
With Kemp standing near home plate, Dodger Stadium fans chanted his name and team mates showered him with celebratory Gatorade, not once, but twice.
The scene was a long way from what Kemp experienced just a year earlier.
"Last year was tough battling injuries,” Kemp told reporters. “I came back strong. I had my team mates behind me and my family behind me, and we’re here now. I just continue to grind. This is where I want to be.”
It was not always a given that the Dodgers would be Kemp’s club this season. The 30-year-old outfielder was the subject of trade rumors during the off-season as the perception grew that his best days were behind him.
Kemp spent nearly as much time on the operating table as he did the field in 2013 when his campaign was hijacked by ailments. He underwent both shoulder and ankle surgeries and dealt with nagging hamstrings.
By year’s end, Kemp played in just 73 games, his lowest total since his rookie season in Los Angeles in 2006.
But more than physical, the injuries seemed to take their toll on Kemp’s disposition. There were reports that he was unhappy about his lack of playing time in a crowded Dodgers outfield. And while Cuban All-Star Yasiel Puig became the darling of Los Angeles baseball, Kemp faded from the spotlight.
He has managed to reclaim that admiration when it matters most.
“If we don’t have him, we’re probably at home watching baseball,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said of Kemp’s importance to the team.
Kemp regained his groove in 2014 with a steady regular season that included 25 home runs and 89 runs batted in. He also restored his image, and smile.
The two-time All-Star was serenaded last month by home fans after hitting a crucial home run on his birthday, and the appreciation appears mutual.
Kemp says he still has not regained the physical capabilities he had at his peak 2011 level, when he slugged 39 home runs, drove in 126 runs, stole 40 bases and batted .324.
But things are certainly looking brighter than they were.
“I feel just blessed, man,” Kemp said. “I'm just blessed to be able to be on this stage and be able to be healthy and to help the team try to accomplish a big-time goal.”
Editing by Gene Cherry