How Matt Kemp's Balky Shoulder Is the Final Wrench in the Dodgers' Playoff Hopes

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2012

Matt Kemp went 1-for-3 in his return to the Dodgers lineup.
Matt Kemp went 1-for-3 in his return to the Dodgers lineup.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The good news for the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night (Sept. 11) is that both Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp returned to the lineup after missing a few recent games due to injuries.

The bad news for the Dodgers is that they lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks 1-0, demonstrating why it's going to be difficult for them to stay in the NL playoff race if they can't score any runs. 

As long as Kemp's left shoulder continues to bother him—and it's surely not going to heal until after the season is over—he won't be able to provide the Dodgers with the middle-of-the-order run production that the lineup desperately needs right now. 

Kemp did go 1-for-3 on Tuesday, hitting a seventh-inning double off Ian Kennedy. Getting an extra-base hit had to be encouraging for both Kemp and the Dodgers as they look for some power from their primary run producers. Perhaps the cortisone shot that Kemp took in his injured shoulder over the weekend is helping with the pain. 

The Dodgers center fielder demonstrated that he can still help the team with his defense. During the seventh inning of Tuesday's game, Kemp threw out the D-Backs' Miguel Montero at home plate to keep the Arizona lead at 1-0. 

You can see video of the play here.

However, the Dodgers really need Kemp to hit. Coming into Tuesday's game, Kemp was batting .115 during September with a .379 OPS. Adrian Gonzalez (.243) and Hanley Ramirez (.235) haven't hit well for the month either, magnifying the need for the Dodgers' best hitter to come through during the final three weeks of the regular season. 

Andre Ethier has been trying to compensate for his struggling teammates. He's hitting .273 with a .909 OPS in September, adding three home runs and four RBI. Yet as ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon wrote, Ethier may be trying too hard at the plate, over-swinging for home runs. 

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Ethier may have to continue carrying the offensive burden for the lineup because it doesn't appear that Kemp's shoulder will allow him to swing the bat up to his full capabilities.

Saxon reported that Kemp feels severe pain in that left shoulder, especially when he swings and misses at an off-speed pitch.

The cortisone shot may have alleviated some of the pain and restored some range of motion, but it's still preventing him from hitting for power. Kemp told Saxon that he noticed he couldn't drive the ball as he normally does when a long fly ball he hit last week against the San Diego Padres didn't go over the fence. 

Consider just how well the Dodgers played in April when Kemp looked like he would claim the National League MVP Award he was denied last year. Kemp hit .417/.490/.893 with 12 home runs and 25 RBI during the opening month of the season. Not coincidentally, the Dodgers went 16-7 in April, building an early four-game lead in the NL West.

Since then, of course, Kemp has missed 56 games due to hamstring and shoulder injuries. He's hit only six home runs since that explosive April. 

The Dodgers have scored 22 runs in nine games so far in September, an average of 2.4 runs per game. Even with outstanding pitching like that which Kershaw gave them on Tuesday, allowing just one run and three hits over seven innings, no team is going to win consistently while scoring so few runs. 

The 1-0 loss dropped the Dodgers to six games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West. With 20 games remaining in the regular season, that's looking like an increasingly insurmountable deficit. The Dodgers don't figure to make up much ground while their offense continues to struggle either. 

Fortunately for the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Padres 6-4 on Tuesday. That kept the margin between the Dodgers and Cards in the NL Wild Card standings at one game. The Wild Card looks like the Dodgers' best chance to qualify for the postseason at this point, especially since the Cardinals have also been struggling in September.

Without a significant contribution from Kemp down the stretch, however, it's difficult to see the Dodgers beating out the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot in the NL.

The standings certainly say it's possible. But Kemp is still the major difference maker in the Dodgers lineup. Ramirez and Gonzalez were brought in to provide more punch, but no team can be expected to win consistently with its best hitter restricted by injuries. 

To his credit, Kemp is doing all he can to stay on the field. He knows how vital he is to the Dodgers offense. However, while Kemp's mind and spirit may be willing, his body might be too weak to give his team what it needs most. Ultimately, that could be what costs the Dodgers a spot in the postseason, despite the best efforts of the front office and ownership this year. 


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