ST. LOUIS - There was a time when Matt Kemp looked like an oft-injured, overpaid, underperforming outfielder.
But not since the All-Star break this year. And not after Kemp pretty much saved the Dodgers' season Saturday night with a tiebreaking home run leading off the eighth inning that spurred Los Angeles to a critical 3-2 victory over the Cardinals.
The big contract is still in place -- Kemp is owed $128 million through 2019 -- but now the money isn't the only thing driving the conversation.
After a huge second half, Kemp is a factor again this October. And the Dodgers, with an MLB-high $230-million payroll, will need everything they have to get past the resilient Cardinals, who host Game 3 Monday night at Busch Stadium. The series is tied 1-1.
"I think it's been kind of a tale of two seasons almost for Matt," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "The first half, seemed to be a little more of a struggle. Towards the end, he started to get a lot more hits. And then second half, the power came.
"It's been a tough couple of years for him, with multiple surgeries. I think it took a lot longer to get back, to kind of get his rhythm and get back into the game, than I think he expected."
The important thing to note, however, is that Kemp is here now. He's still only 30, and now that he's a full year removed from the ankle surgery that sidelined him for last October's playoffs, Kemp appears to be a force again. He's riding some strong momentum, too.
"Just blessed, man," Kemp said. "It's been a grind the last two years. Last year was a disappointing year for me as far as just sitting there and watching my team be successful. I thought I could have helped them a lot. I'm just blessed to be able to be on this stage and be able to be healthy and to help the team try to accomplish a big-time goal."
With a huge second half, Kemp was poised to put the Dodgers on his shoulders in October. He hit only eight homers in 86 games and had a .430 slugging percentage before the All-Star break, but Kemp's muscle at the plate improved month by month afterward.
In those 64 post-break games, Kemp hit 17 homers and slugged at a .606 pace, the best in the majors (Giancarlo Stanton was runner-up at .586). Kemp also finished strong in September, with a 1.087 OPS and 25 RBIs in 24 games.
"He's healthy," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's what it really comes down to. You can tell there's a different confidence in his swing and in his approach and how he attacks the ball."
"And I always respect how these guys just push when they're not right physically, they figure out a way to stay in there and fight. But then they're rewarded once they do come around to full health."