Clayton Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings, escaping at one point from a seemingly impossible jam as the Dodgers held on to beat the Angels, 5-3, in the rubber game of a series against a team the Dodgers felt proud to beat.
"It was a huge weekend for us," said manager Joe Torre. "We lose Friday with [ace] Chad Billingsley and to come back and win the next two is a shot in the arm."
Not that the best team in baseball needs a shot in the arm. The Dodgers, a season-high 22 games above .500, hit .320 in the series, beating Jered Weaver and John Lackey back to back. They've won eight consecutive series and true A-list celebs are now drawn to see the act.
"Kobe -- that was kind of exciting," said center fielder Matt Kemp. "Never seen him sitting at a game like that. Gave us a chance to show him what the Dodgers are about and how we do it. I was looking to see who he was rooting for, but he was chillin'. He didn't show love to either side. He was neutral."
Angels center fielder Torii Hunter wasn't so sure how huge Sunday's game was.
"This weekend was not a test," Hunter said. "We won two out of three there [at Dodger Stadium] and they won two out of three here. It's good matchups. Hopefully, that's the World Series. It'd be a lot of fun."
The teams dueled on scoreless terms until Kemp teamed with Juan Pierre for a run in the fifth and another in the seventh. Each frame Kemp led off with a single (one a liner, one a bunt), was sacrificed to second by Brad Ausmus and was doubled home by Pierre.
James Loney slugged a two-run homer in the eighth inning that stood up to an instant-replay review by the umpires and Pierre's third hit led to a fifth run, which came in handy when closer Jonathan Broxton allowed two runs in the ninth inning for the second consecutive game.
Broxton will become the area of concern now that he's been whacked back to back after missing four days with an inflamed toe nerve.
But Sunday, the attention focused on Kershaw, who responded to one of his worst games (2 2/3 innings) June 10 with nothing but zeros for 12 2/3 innings of his next two starts.
This one included an amazing escape trick in the fifth inning, when the Angels loaded the bases with no outs on a pair of walks and Kershaw's wild throw into center field on a sacrifice bunt.
"I just told him, 'If it comes to you, come to me and we'll get a double play,'" said catcher Ausmus. "I didn't actually think it would happen."
But it did. Then Kershaw got Torii Hunter to pop out and end the threat. Kershaw pitched the next two innings scoreless, finished with five strikeouts, but also four walks.
"The kid grew up in a hurry," said Torre. "I told [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt], he got himself into the mess, he'll have to get himself out. From there on out, he was pretty much dominant. He's 21. I was still drooling at 21."
Kershaw's record improved to 4-5 with a 3.76 ERA. He said he feels he must prove himself worthy of keeping a slot in the starting rotation but rejects the suggestion that he puts too much pressure on himself.
"I think that is pitching," he said. "It helps me out. I think I have to prove myself every time. You get comfortable, you take things for granted. I don't ever want that. It helps me stay grounded, proving myself to keep my spot. I just don't think of it as self-pressure."
Ausmus has seen his share of phenoms in two decades of professional catching.
"What I've seen from Clayton is a very talented young pitcher at times pitching like a young pitcher and at times showing flashes of the type of pitcher he can be," he said.
"The more you go through situations like the fifth inning, the more you realize it's not an impossible situation. A lot of times you get out of it without a run scoring. Why can't it be this time?"