SAN FRANCISCO -- Shortly before Tuesday night's game, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp took a small step toward getting out of manager Joe Torre's doghouse. And then, during a game he was never supposed to play in, he took a giant leap in that same direction.
Benched for the third game in a row for reasons neither he nor Torre would reveal to the media -- MLB.com reported that Kemp had gotten into a dugout confrontation with a member of the coaching staff during Saturday's victory over the New York Yankees -- Kemp finally did what Torre apparently was waiting for him to do, which was to approach the manager for a pregame chat. At the end of that conversation, Torre said he told Kemp that he would be back in the starting lineup on Wednesday.
Those plans changed, though, in the first inning of the Dodgers' 4-2 win over the San Francisco Giants before 35,289 at AT&T Park. When Manny Ramirez left the game with a right-hamstring injury, Kemp was inserted as a pinch runner and played the rest of the game, going 2-for-4 at the plate and making a pair of highlight-reel catches in center field, both of which loomed large in a close game that ended with the potential tying run at the plate.
"I just go out there and play the best I can and do whatever I can to help my team," Kemp said. "I ran down a couple of balls and got some hits. I'll just try to come back tomorrow and do it again."
Kemp said little about his pregame meeting with Torre. Asked about the report that he had gotten into a confrontation with an unnamed coach -- a report that seemed to make sense, given that Kemp's benching began the following day -- Kemp avoided either confirming or denying.
"That's just a report," he said.
Kemp began the day hitting .258 and a ghastly .196 in June, and he had struck out in eight of his previous 14 plate appearances. His first two at-bats were more of the same. In the third inning, he fouled out to first with a man in scoring position (Russell Martin stole second base during the at-bat). In the third, batting with runners on the corners and one out, Kemp struck out swinging.
Although Kemp had entered as a late-inning defensive replacement both Saturday and Sunday, those were his first two plate appearances since Saturday.
"My first at-bat, I was a little stiff," he said. "It took me a little time to get loose. But after that, I felt pretty good."
He must have felt pretty good in center field in the sixth inning, too. After Pablo Sandoval reached on an error to start the inning with the Dodgers leading 4-1, Aubrey Huff drove a ball to the gap in left-center. Kemp didn't get a great jump, but he recovered quickly and his superior athletic ability took over as he ranged far to his right and made a lunging grab to rob Huff of at least a double.
Kemp came up again in the seventh, driving a single through the right side of the infield against Dan Runzler.
Then, with Ramon Troncoso in to relieve starter John Ely at the start of the eighth, Andres Torres began the inning with another drive to the gap in left-center. Kemp's catch was almost identical to the first one, except that he had to stretch just a little farther to gather it in, causing him to lose his balance and crash into the warning track just in front of the wall as he somehow held onto the ball.
That catch would prove especially timely later in the inning when Sandoval singled to right field, a hit that almost certainly would have scored the speedy Torres from second.
Finally, Kemp capped off the evening with another single, this one to left field against Jeremy Affeldt in the ninth. He raised his average to .261.
"He seemed a little quieter at the plate," Torre said. "I don't think he has had two days off all year. Hopefully, this is something he can build on, because I know he has been frustrated. He is important for us. He hits in the middle of our lineup. Hopefully, he can get on a run."
The second-place Dodgers (42-35) moved to within three games of division-leading San Diego in the National League West and improved to 20-5 -- an .800 winning percentage -- against divisional opponents this season.
Ely was outstanding for the Dodgers for the second start in a row, and this time, he was rewarded with a victory.
Ely held the Giants to a run on five hits over seven innings. The Giants scored their only run in the first, Torres leading off with a double and Freddy Sanchez drawing a walk before Ely could retire a batter, with Torres eventually scoring on Huff's sacrifice fly. But Ely ended that inning by striking out Juan Uribe with runners on first and second, then ended the fourth by getting Edgar Renteria to ground to third with runners on the corners.
Other than that, Ely (4-5) was never really in serious trouble. He shaved his ERA to 3.62.
By the Numbers
1-- Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario needed to record his first major league save on a night when neither Jonathan Broxton nor Hong-Chih Kuo was available out of the bullpen. Belisario relieved Justin Miller with the Dodgers leading by two, two outs and a man on first in the ninth and pinch hitter Buster Posey coming to the plate as the potential tying run. Belisario started Posey off with a fastball, which Posey lined straight into the glove of Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal.
Miller was brought in to start the inning with a chance at his first big league save, but he gave up a home run to Pat Burrell leading off and, after retiring Uribe and pinch hitter Travis Ishikawa, a single to Renteria. That brought Torre out with the hook.
Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier is beginning to look like a lock as the National League's starting right fielder for the All-Star Game. Although final rosters won't be announced until Sunday, Ethier remained third among NL outfielders in the last balloting update in advance of that announcement, which was released on Tuesday, and he had a commanding lead of almost 500,000 votes over fourth-place Jayson Werth of Philadelphia.
The top three outfielders in the voting will comprise the NL starting outfield, regardless of which of the three spots they normally play.
Right-hander Vicente Padilla (1-2, 5.82) starts for L.A. on Wednesday night versus the Giants. Padilla is coming off what arguably was his best start of the season, a seven-inning, six-hit effort against the vaunted New York Yankees on Friday night. His only other start that came close to being that good was against the Giants on April 16 (three runs on four hits over seven innings). Padilla struck out seven in each of those games. Lefty Jonathan Sanchez (6-5, 3.03) goes for the Giants. Like Tuesday night's starter, Matt Cain, Sanchez has never beaten the Dodgers, going 0-4 with a 6.13 ERA in eight career starts against them.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.