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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Kemp makes debut, but Puig still steals show

Dodgers' significant depth at outfield put on display with last-minute scratch

Kemp makes debut, but Puig still steals show play video for Kemp makes debut, but Puig still steals show

LOS ANGELES -- Whatever you think or feel about the Los Angeles Dodgers, you have to admit they have some crazy-good depth. Yasiel Puig steps aside, and Matt Kemp steps in.

How many teams can discipline their starting right fielder, among the most gifted athletes alive, and replace him with one of the game's best all-around players, one who is a cut below Mike Trout but very few others?

It wasn't the script Hollywood's team had in mind for its home opener on Friday afternoon. An occasion made special by a roll call of greats appearing for Vin Scully's ceremonial toss to Sandy Koufax made a bizarre turn thanks to the latest Puig misadventure in the hours preceding an 8-4 Giants victory.

Late to the park for stretching and batting practice, Puig was scratched, enhancing his reputation as one of the most polarizing performers in professional sports.

Kemp, activated from the disabled list but unhappy that his name was not on the original lineup card, inherited Puig's vacated No. 2 slot in the lineup and returned to his natural position in center field. Andre Ethier, who can play anywhere in the outfield, took over in right without blinking an eye.

The Dodgers were down by eight runs before they got a base hit, and the Giants' fourth win in five road tests had San Franciscans starting to believe in the possibility of another magical even-numbered season. But Kemp went 1-for-4 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored.

"It felt good to come back," Kemp said. "It's been a rough year and a half. I think my mom was more emotional than me. She was crying. I said, 'Why?' She said, 'I'm just glad you're back.'"

So are Kemp's teammates. When healthy, he can make a good lineup absolutely lethal.

"He's definitely not an old guy," second baseman Dee Gordon, hitting .412, said of the 29-year-old Kemp. "He's just been hurt. All of us get hurt. To see him come back like that is definitely a blessing."

Driving in Carl Crawford with a ringing double to the left-center gap in the fifth inning and running freely on the bases and in the outfield, Kemp showed clear signs that his left shoulder and left ankle miseries, resulting in winter surgeries, were things of the past.

If this is the case, and he can get back to his 2011 form as arguably the game's best PT (pre-Trout) player, Kemp will not have to be checking any lineup cards to look for his name.

"I've been working really hard to get back," he said. "I'm excited to get back on the field."

Kemp had "nothing to say" about Puig's predicament, acknowledging that he was not pleased to find he wasn't starting before Puig's tardiness opened the door.

"If you're not in the lineup," Kemp said, "you're expected to be mad. You don't want to see other teams beat your team. I think our four or five outfielders feel the same way."

Mindful of all the injuries and setbacks of 2013, the Dodgers resisted the urgings of insiders and critics all winter to trade one of their four high-profile outfielders, Crawford completing the quartet in left with Scott Van Slyke the fifth wheel.

Puig was contrite and "humbled," manager Don Mattingly said, adding that he got the starting time wrong and was hanging around his apartment when he should have been making the trip to Dodger Stadium.

Puig quietly apologized to teammates for the transgression. Because he is an otherworldly talent along the lines of a Bo Jackson, Puig has to be given some rope. The hope is that he doesn't strangle himself with it and goes on to have the kind of career reflective of his uncommon skills.

"Things happen ... people make mistakes," Kemp said in reference to Puig's second benching for showing up late to a game, the first having come last season at Miami. "I don't think we're worried about who's playing, who's not playing."

Kemp, while showing mobility, struggled in the outfield. He bobbled a Michael Morse single for an error during the Giants' six-run first inning against Hyun-Jin Ryu and couldn't reach a drive by Brandon Hicks over his right shoulder an inning later.

"It just so happened the first ball hit to me, I booted," Kemp said. "Just my luck. No rust. I've been playing. I got a good jump on [Hicks' fly ball]. It just stayed up there. I should have made the play."

Ryu's most frustrating effort of his young Major League career -- two innings and eight runs (six earned) -- left the Dodgers buried. They showed signs of life in the middle innings, Adrian Gonzalez and Ethier launching back-to-back homers in the fourth against Ryan Vogelsong. But the Giants held on, leaving the Dodgers pondering all the imponderables.

"The first two innings were sloppy," Kemp said. "We kept fighting, coming back. The bullpen did a great job" in holding the Giants hitless for the game's last seven innings. "A couple of times late we had men on base but didn't capitalize. But we kept fighting."

Kemp struck out against Juan Gutierrez to finish the sixth, leaving Gordon at third after he had singled, stolen second and advanced on Buster Posey's throwing error.

"I had some good at-bats, felt really good, relaxed," Kemp said.

He will feel even better when addressing the media under happier circumstances, not being asked to analyze the conduct of his headline-dominating teammate in right field.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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