RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. A standing room only crowd of 6,516 packed Rancho Cucamonga's Epicenter Tuesday night to catch a glimpse of three rehabbing Los Angeles Dodgers, with special reverence paid to hobbled superstar Matt Kemp in his continued rehabilitation from a hamstring injury that his kept him out of the lineup for 46 of the last 48 Dodger games. Los Angeles is 22-26 in his absence.
Though the scuffling Dodger offense broke open late in a 3-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds the club has now plated 30 runs in the last 16 games it was all about Kemp, Mark Ellis and Javy Guerra at The Epicenter, as well as a post-game holiday fireworks show.
Of course, it was what happened in between the chalk lines that mattered most to Kemp.
"Am I looking forward to the fireworks? Right now I'm looking forward to getting back on this field," Kemp said prior to Tuesday's assignment. "That's about it. Maybe the fireworks after the game."
With a 2-3 performance that included a lined single into left field, a second inning walk, a fourth inning strikeout and opposite field, two-strike single in the seventh, Kemp took a step forward in his latest attempt to return from a nagging hamstring injury that required a second DL stint after he re-aggravated it running the bases in a 6-3 loss to Milwaukee on May 30.
"I've been off for a while, so seeing live pitching and all that felt a little weird, but as the game went on, I felt more comfortable. I think tomorrow it'll be a lot better," Kemp said.
Though he was the designated hitter, he was able to test his hamstring on the basepaths and scored a first inning run in a game the Quakes won, 4-2, over the High Desert Mavericks.
"It felt good. It felt loose," Kemp said of his hamstring.
He'll play centerfield in tomorrow's game in San Bernardino against the Inland Empire 66ers and appears loosely targeted for a major league return date of July 13, the first game after the All-Star Break.
He also spoke of the message he wanted to impart to the developing ballplayers he shared a clubhouse with Tuesday night.
"Just playing hard and getting your work in. Having fun. The simple things that kind of make baseball easy," Kemp said. "When you're down here in the minor leagues, sometimes it gets a little bit frustrating because you put a little bit too much pressure on yourself trying to get up to the next level and things like that. All these guys need to do it to just relax, have fun, and let their abilities take over."
For Guerra, who struck out a batter in a hitless first inning, it was a reversed role from his days as a minor leaguer when one particular rehabbing player left an impression on him.
"Esteban Loaiza was probably the guy, because I've always looked up to him being Hispanic and being Mexican," he said. "Being as nice and open as he was, it was great. It translated a lot to a lot of guys, because you're able to kind of realize that these guys aren't on a pedestal. We're all human. Everyone wants to just get better."
Guerra sounded confident in his ability to rejoin the Dodger roster soon after testing his arthroscopically repaired right knee that has kept him out of action since June 2. It was his first Cal League action since he was a member of the 2007 and 2008 66ers, a prior Dodgers affiliate.
"It was a little surreal, because back in the day, the Quakes were the guys that we didn't like," he said.
Ellis was 2-4 with a run scored at the plate and played six innings at second base. He is expected to be activated on Thursday with Andre Ethier bound for the disabled list with a strained left oblique suffered in the first inning of a 3-0 loss to San Francisco on June 27.
"I got some counts where I went to 3-2 counts and saw a bunch of pitches, some breaking balls and some changeups and stuff, so it was perfect," Ellis said. "It was exactly what I needed."
Though the team was seven and a half games up on San Francisco on May 27 and half a game behind the Giants after Tuesday's action, Kemp was optimistic of the team's circumstances over the second half of the season in the battle for a divisional title.
"It's definitely a good feeling," he said. "We've just got to get back, everybody get healthy. Mark's getting healthy. I'm getting healthy. Javy's going to be back. We're going to have our whole team back, and that'll give us a little boost. We'll get Dre back after the All-Star Break or whatever the plan is for him. But once we get everybody back, everybody's going to get more comfortable."
"That's when baseball gets exciting, in the second half when you're trying to fight for a playoff spot."
It was certainly an exciting night in the Rancho Cucamonga clubhouse after the 4-2 win as the Quakes sauntered back in to find a postgame spread of P.F. Changs, all compliments of their temporary superstar.
"It's fun, man," Kemp said. I remember I was back in Columbus, Georgia and Vero Beach, and this definitely brings back memories. You know, the guys, they've been really cool. It's just great to be down here with them and if they need anything, or if they need any advice on anything on how to get to the big leagues, I'm here for them, just like the big leaguers were there for me whenever I was in the lower class."