CLEVELAND – The champagne and beer were still joyously flowing.
Selfies were snapped, teammates laughed and hugged, and last season’s champs reveled in the wonder of another playoff series victory.
The first time I saw Tony Kemp on Monday afternoon in the visitor’s clubhouse inside Progressive Field, he was tucked into a corner and sitting on the floor, next to Marwin Gonzalez.
The next time I saw the Astro who ignited a game-changing seventh inning – by the time the barrage was over, the American League Division Series winners would score 10 runs in the final three frames of Game 3 against the Indians – Kemp was slowly walking through a soaked clubhouse, taking everything in and creating instant memories.
A band on one wrist read “Blessed."
Kemp's other wrist: “I am second.”
“It’s speaking to God and saying, ‘Put people before yourself,’ ” said the 5-foot 6, 165-pound outfielder, who’s done everything the Astros have asked in 2018, consistently sacrificed for his team and become a fan favorite, despite not making the Opening Day roster.
When the Astros were approaching rock bottom of their rebuild in 2013, Kemp became a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt. He didn’t hit above .218 during his initial two MLB seasons and only recorded 37 at-bats for last season’s world champions, then watched the entire postseason from afar. But Kemp kept drawing the Astros’ attention and then kept forcing his way into A.J. Hinch’s lineup this season, hitting .263 with six home runs, 30 RBIs, 37 runs, 32 walks, nine stolen bases and a .743 OPS for a 103-win team.
I intended to devote a column to the speedy, upbeat 26-year-old multiple times this year. Monday, Kemp went 1-for-3 with two runs, two walks and again proved how valuable he is to the best regular-season team in franchise history.
Pregame, Hinch perfectly captured Kemp’s energy and vitality.
“One of the most disappointing parts of the spring is having to tell him he didn't make our team,” Hinch said. “All he did was go down and outperform the league in Triple-A and wait for his opportunity. When his opportunity came, it was the first time that he had a legit chance to play and play pretty regularly. Maybe not every single day, maybe not every single opportunity, but there was something.
“What he did was come in and convince me and the coaching staff that he could be an available part of a really good team. Really proud of the mindset that he took, for the patience that he showed and ultimately for the production.”
Before the Astros’ three-run seventh – Hinch’s team down 2-1 following a Francisco Lindor solo blast; momentum suddenly belonging to Cleveland and a potential Game 4 looming – I noticed Kemp and George Springer having a private conversation while Indians reliever Trevor Bauer waited. Kemp was soon smiling as he walked toward the plate.
Ten Astros runs followed that simple grin.
“I looked at (Springer) and said, ‘Man, I love playing with you.’ I just said, ‘I love playing with you,’ ” Kemp said. “A couple days ago George looked at me in the locker room, because we’re locker buddies, and he said, ‘Man, you’re one of my favorite people.’ And just being able to be really buddy-buddy with those guys. I’m just blessed, man, to be in this situation. Drafted in 2013, the shortest guy in the draft. Jeff Luhnow taking a chance on me. … It’s just amazing, especially with this team.”
Kemp got chills discussing his growing relationship with the teammate he shared a corner of a screaming clubhouse with. Last season, Gonzalez excelled as the Astros’ super utilityman and was a team favorite for MVP. This year, Kemp has played multiple roles for the Astros – left/center/right fielder, second base, designated hitter; starter and late-inning substitute – and learned from one of the best role players in MLB.
“It’s especially humbling. Being able to talk to Marwin and being able to pick his brain all year and the last couple seasons I’ve been up, he’s kind of been in the same role I have,” Kemp said. “Not the really everyday player, but the guy who gets in there every two or three days. What helped me this year is being able to really sit in the locker room and talk to him about his approach and his mindset each game. I can honestly say Marwin Gonzalez has helped me have success this year.”
The joy was poured all around Kemp. Shouts became so loud that he had to pause his answers. Then he laughed and smiled at the release of October.
The Astros are four wins away from returning to the World Series because of Alex Bregman, Justin Verlander, Hinch and Co. They won 103 games and could end up as the best overall team in franchise history – for the second consecutive season – also because of names like Tyler White, Gonzalez and Kemp.
“This guy (Kemp) came in and I don't know how many games this season he became a sparkplug for us, or lead off an inning we were coming back from, or get up and get a big pinch hit and move them around the field a little bit,” Hinch said. “Great attitude, great approach. Really valuable player.”
Source : https://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/texas-sports-nation/brian-t-smith/article/Smith-Tony-Kemp-keeps-igniting-inspiring-Astros-13294022.php