LOS ANGELES -- With a 3-1 win on Wednesday, the Dodgers swept their practice series with the Pirates and resume the pennant race on Friday night against the Giants. OK, it wasn't a practice series, but it had that look with the lineup Joe Torre fielded for a noon game that included only two starters from Tuesday night's walk-off win in 13 innings. When you think about it, the Dodgers deserve some credit for being in first place for five months without getting to play the Pirates until this week. Matt Kemp, taking turns with Andre Ethier as hero du jour, slugged a two-run homer on an 0-2 pitch from Kevin Hart in the sixth inning. Ronnie Belliard, who doubled and scored ahead of Kemp, homered two innings later. Belliard is hitting .319 with three homers in 13 games since being acquired Aug. 30.
Hiroki Kuroda earned his second win since returning from a line drive off his head and the bullpen was again untouchable, as Hong-Chih Kuo, George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton (save No. 35) retired all nine batters they faced, as they did Monday night. Since Aug. 15, Broxton is 10-for-10 in saves without allowing an earned run. The Dodgers are a season-high 29 games above .500. Following a day off on Thursday, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry is on again at Dodger Stadium. The attendance for the three weekend games could rival the 53,193 on hand on Wednesday, the largest non-Opening Day weekday afternoon crowd at Dodger Stadium. Torre picked up on the practice angle, at least in terms of winning back-to-back close games. "It's good practice for us if we continue what we're doing and we get to the postseason, because we'll be going up against the best pitchers," said the manager. "This was an important series for us to win, especially Monday, coming from San Francisco, where you know the emotions run high, and to not flatten out the next day." Kemp has career highs with 24 homers and 94 RBIs, to go with 33 stolen bases and a .305 average. He said the improved hitting in the clutch this year by him and Ethier is a function of maturity as players, accelerated by the experience of last year's playoffs. "It shows we're growing," he said. "Sometimes in pressure situations early in my career, I was too tense trying to make things happen. Now I let the game come to me and I'm having more fun. Manny [Ramirez] is one reason. You see him having fun, but you also know how dangerous he is in a pressure situation. He's changed a lot of us around here, but the biggest pressure is playing in the playoffs. That helped all of us." Kuroda looked playoff-ready and almost as good as his last start, when he allowed the Giants two runs in eight innings. The right-hander allowed the Pirates one run in six innings, and he struck out seven without a walk. "He's been terrific, and it's a little of a surprise that he's been able to really get back to the mound and deal with a great deal of trauma, not to mention the concussion," said Torre. "To have him jump in there this time of year is important because of what he did last year for us." The importance and timing of Kuroda's comeback from a concussion three starts ago is magnified by injuries to Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw and the slump of Chad Billingsley, who spent the day in the bullpen after learning that his start would be pushed back four days. Kuroda, though, laughed when asked about exceeding expectations since his return from that horrifying injury Aug. 15. "I'd like to know what the expectation was," he said. "When I first came back, I was a little concerned, as well as other people. All I could do was pitch my game. I'm pretty much satisfied with the comeback." He lost the first game back, allowing the Cardinals three earned runs in five innings, then beat the Giants and now the Pirates. He was asked if there are similarities between this late-season surge and the one last year, when he became the staff ace in September and October. He couldn't resist the obvious answer. "I wouldn't say it's the same as last year," he said. "I didn't get hit in the head last year."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.