For the last three years they had been orbiting each other in baseball's most rarefied air, two of the brightest stars only glimmering at each other from a distance, sharing a freeway but rarely a field.
Finally, Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, they stared each other down from 60 feet 6 inches apart.
The game's greatest pitcher against the game's greatest hitter. The two-time Cy Young Award winner versus the two-time MVP runner-up. The scraggly-haired scrapper versus the swaggering kid.
Clayton Kershaw versus Mike Trout.
In a game eventually won by the Dodgers, 5-4, on a walk-off throwing error by Angels third baseman David Freese, the walk-in attraction was two of Los Angeles' biggest sports superstars meeting in a regular-season hardball game for the first time. Kershaw had thrown three pitches to Trout in the 2013 All-Star game and retired him on a fly out, but this was different. This was a head-on collision in the Freeway Series. These punches were real.
“You're talking about two of the really young bright megastars of the game,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said before the game. “Obviously there's a lot of attention on two young players of that magnitude going head to head.”
It was a singular suspense set against a collective drama, teams with two of the best five records in baseball clinging and chasing, the Dodgers trying to fend off the San Francisco Giants while the Angels continue to chase the Oakland Athletics. Already, the Angels had whacked the Dodgers by five runs in the series opener. Quickly, Kershaw need to stop a streak of three losses in the four games played since his last start.
“This is the best buzz out here,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. “San Francisco is good, but this has more of that inner-city energy to it.”
That energy immediately centered around Kershaw and Trout. The Dodgers pitcher was greeted with the sort of ovation that was once bestowed upon the likes of Orel Hershiser. The Angels outfielder was showered with the sort of heartfelt boos that once rained down here upon the likes of Barry Bonds.
Kershaw took the mound in the first inning, quickly retired Erick Aybar on a silly bunt attempt and up stepped his rival. They glanced at each other only briefly before Kershaw went to work. His first pitch was a 93-mph fastball that twisted into a strike. His second pitch was a 74-mph curveball that dipped out of the strike zone. His third pitch was a grounder whacked by Trout through the infield and to the left of third base. Juan Uribe dived, snagged the ball, and threw to first, but the blazing Trout crossed the base just as the ball arrived, and he was ruled safe.
But was he? The Dodgers challenged the call. While the umpires huddled in foul territory behind home plate, Kershaw stalked behind the mound and Trout stood on first base, the two stars standing 50 feet apart but never looking at each other.
The scoreboard repeatedly showed replays that indicated the play was too close to call. Officials in New York agreed and Trout's safe call was upheld. The fans indignantly howled. Trout had won Round 1.
Two innings later, Trout came to the plate leading off, swinging big again, and this time there was no controversy, no question. He drove Kershaw's first pitch down the left-field line and into the corner for a double. Trout was two for two. Kershaw was zero for answers. The left-hander stepped off the mound, dug his fist into his beard stubble, and proceeded to allow an Albert Pujols double that tied the score at 3-3.
Their next encounter was two innings later, in the fifth, with one out and the bases empty, score still tied. Trout dug in at the plate. He had already had two good swings, why not expect a third?
Not so fast. The scrapper had apparently had enough. Kershaw reared back and threw what appeared to be his three hardest consecutive pitches of the night, three 94-mph buzz saws that dipped and swirled and spun through the zone.
The slippery Trout was frozen solid. Those two big swings were distant memories. This time the bat never left his shoulder. This time he struck out looking. Round 3 to Kershaw.
Ah, but if only they could have dueled all night. Unfortunately, before Trout could lead off the eighth inning, Kershaw was pulled for pinch-hitter Carl Crawford in the seventh. Kershaw had thrown 104 pitches in heavy heat, and appeared to be tiring. The Dodgers had even considered pulling him an inning earlier.
But Kershaw held his ground until the end, even in the clubhouse later. When asked about facing Trout, Kershaw tightened his jaw.
“I'll talk about facing the Angels, he's one of their best hitters,” he said.
When asked again about details of the matchup, he repeated, “I'm not going to talk about individual guys. He's a great hitter. He got two hits tonight.”
In the other clubhouse, Trout was much more talkative, his excitable youth in stark contrast to Kershaw's veteran edge.
“Always fun to match up, he battles out there, he's a competitor,” said Trout. “All heaters except that one curveball . . . my third at-bat he just painted me in . . . it was pretty cool facing him.”
So who won? Trout triumphed individually, but Kershaw and the Dodgers had the last laugh. In the end, one supposes, all of Los Angeles won. On this October night in July, it was greatness squared, greatness shared.