The talk around Braves spring training was Matt Kemp had, to the eye, turned back the clock. Whether he wanted to discuss it or not, a slimmed down look had more than a few likening him to Kemp circa 2011, back when he was terrorizing pitchers.
Tuesday night at Citi Field, he also delivered a performance at the plate that was every bit that version of himself. The right fielder doubled three times — giving for on the short season — with the last one providing the go-ahead runs in the 12th as Atlanta outlasted the Mets 3-1.
It was the second three-double game of Kemp’s career, and the first since — yep — 2011 (Aug. 22 to be exact), when he finished second in the National League MVP voting to the Brewers’ Ryan Braun.
None of this is to insinuate that Kemp is going to be in the running for MVP or even 2014, the last time he had a WAR higher than 0.7. But this was further proof of how much damage a rejuvenated Kemp can do when teams opt to avoid Freddie Freeman.
“Matt’s been great form the get-go this year how he showed up to camp,” said manager Brian Snitker. “That’s why he’s hitting cleanup too. If they want to pitch around Freddie … that’s OK. He got big hits for us last year and he’s our guy.”
After Dansby Swanson grounded into the second out of the 12th in a game that had been tied at 1-1 since the seventh, Mets reliever Rafael Montero intentionally walked Freeman.
Kemp would see just one pitch — a 92 mph two-seamer — and lined a two-out, two-bagger over the head of Wilmer Flores and into to left field.
“That’s kind of what he does is knock runs in,” Snitker said. “Good to see. He’s been working real hard out at it. Guys that knock in 100 runs, they have a knack for doing that.”
They also have a knack for picking up an offense that simply struggled to break out.
Adonis Garcia doubled home the first run of the season in the seventh, scoring Nick Markakis after his triple (stunningly, just the right fielder’s second in a Braves uniform and the first since July 21, 2015) to tie the game, but despite loading the bases with one out, Atlanta was denied. Emilio Bonifacio whiffed for the second out and Ender Inciarte hit into an inning-ending groundout.
Through 11 innings, the Braves were 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position, and before Kemp’s final at-bat, had struck out 12 times.
A quick aside: those Ks give the Braves 23 through two games, the second most they’ve ever racked up in franchise history behind only the 24 they had in 2013, when they set a team mark with 1,384 strikeouts. In five of the last six seasons, Atlanta has gone over 1,240 Ks, but only once before this week — ’13 — did it go over 20 strikeouts in two games. It could be meaningless by season’s end, but it’s at least something worth monitoring.
Back to Tuesday night. Those inabilities to make Mets pitching pay after Jacob deGrom’s exit was magnified as Freeman, who has tortured Mets pitching in New York — including going 3 for 4 with a triple in the opener — went 0 for 5.
Before this game, Freeman hadn’t gone hitless in five at-bats in Citi Field in his career, and was riding a 12-game hitting streak against the Mets. But a ground outs in the first, fourth, sixth (vs. deGrom) and eighth innings (vs. Jerry Blevins) and a swinging strikeout in the 10th at the hands of Josh Edgin kept the first baseman off the base paths before his free pass in the 12th.
Kemp made them pay, and now has 17 doubles in 247 at-bats in a Braves uniform. That’s a 14.5 rate that tops what he did in San Diego (18.2) or Los Angeles (18.92).
It’s a small sample size, for sure. But last September/October, his wRC+ of 134 was his best single month since he was a Dodger, and two games and a collective four doubles in, there’s little doubt that he’s found a comfort zone behind Freeman in this lineup.