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Kemp Works Way Back

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was Matt Kemp’s first visit to Albuquerque, so naturally he wanted to take in a local landmark.

First stop: The berm.

Kemp, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ star who’s on an injury rehab assignment in the Duke City, was on the field at Isotopes Park long before any other players Sunday.

“He wanted to have a look at our hill,” ’Topes manager Lorenzo Bundy said of the park’s famous/infamous center-field feature. “I don’t think he was too excited about it.”

Kemp, who started in center field and homered for the ’Topes in their 11-9 win over Oklahoma City, conceded the fact.

“I’m definitely not gonna mess with that hill,” he said with a smile and shake of his head. “That’s crazy.”

Considering the time Kemp’s missed nursing a sore hamstring, Bundy didn’t mind the outfielder’s discretion. He was far more interested in what Kemp might do at the plate — for both the ’Topes and the Dodgers.

On that score, Bundy was not disappointed. Kemp lined a single to left field, homered to right and struck out swinging in a 2-for-3, five-inning performance.

It was exactly the re-start Kemp had in mind.

Coming off a huge 2011 season in which he led the National League in home runs (39), RBIs (126) and finished second in MVP voting, Kemp got off to a sizzling start this year. He was hitting .359 with 12 home runs when he landed on the disabled list May 14.

Kemp’s was one of several injuries to the Dodgers’ everyday lineup. Yet  buoyed by call-ups from Albuquerque, the Dodgers have continued to play well. They’ve opened a 7½-game lead in the National League West.

“It’s been good, and it’s been bad,” Kemp said. “Those guys have done an unbelievable job, but it’s hard sitting there with a towel over my shoulders waiting to wave it when they do something good.”

Bundy, who managed Kemp at Las Vegas several seasons ago, said the outfielder has always preferred to lead by example. He needed only a little prodding.

“I had Matt when he was coming off a fairly decent year (in the majors) and got sent back down,” Bundy said. “I told him, ‘Matt, I want you to get to where you hate Las Vegas,’ — nothing against the city — ‘and get back to LA where you belong.’

“Once he got back up, well, the rest is history. He’s grown into a leader, and that’s his clubhouse now.”

Kemp is eligible to come off the disabled list and rejoin the Dodgers on Tuesday, but he seemed relaxed and was enjoying his brief stop in Albuquerque. The berm notwithstanding, he liked the idea of playing at Isotopes Park.

“I hear it’s dry and the ball flies,” he said.

In batting practice, Kemp flashed some of the prodigious opposite-field power that’s made him a nightmare for opposing pitchers. One of several blasts hit perhaps 20 feet up on a light standard beyond the 428-foot marker in right-center.

“I’m not here trying to hit home runs,” Kemp said. “I’m here to try to help the Isotopes win a game tonight.”

But then, Kemp smiled. “But if the ball flies out of here, that’s OK, too.”

Juan Rivera, Kemp’s Dodger teammate who also is here rehabbing a hamstring injury, went 1-for-2 with a two-run homer. Both are expected to play five innings again today before returning to Los Angeles.

“I’ve been a great cheerleader the past couple weeks,” Kemp said. “It’s time for me to get back on the field and let other people start cheering for me again.”