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Win Is Second Nature

Times Staff Writer

Alex Cora privately seethed in spring training when the Dodgers anointed prospect Joe Thurston as the everyday second baseman.

It was nothing personal against Thurston, Cora simply believed he was right for the job. Now the Dodgers are in agreement.

Cora continued to make his point Sunday with clutch hits and flawless defense while leading the Dodgers to a 2-1 victory over the Florida Marlins.

He had the top crowd-pleasing moments before 43,775 at Dodger Stadium, driving in the Dodgers’ runs with a second-inning triple and fourth-inning single from the leadoff spot as they swept the three-game series and won four in a row for the first time this season.

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The second-place Dodgers (24-20) also moved a season-high four games above .500 and pulled within 3 1/2 games of the struggling San Francisco Giants in the National League West. Cora has been a big part of the Dodgers’ turnaround since April 25, when they trailed the Giants by 8 1/2 games, and he’s proving a point.

“There are always going to be doubters out there,” said Cora, batting .289. “It’s just a matter of forgetting about them, focusing on what you’ve got in front of you and doing the things you’re supposed to do.

“If you’ve got to move guys over, you do it. If you’ve got to be patient, be patient. And when you’ve got to bring ‘em in, bring ‘em in.”

Cora also added to the long list of dazzling double plays he and shortstop Cesar Izturis are compiling daily, starting another in the eighth to help the Dodgers escape a jam. Thurston is at triple-A Las Vegas after struggling in the exhibition season and failing to make the opening-day roster, and Cora has prompted the Dodgers to re-evaluate their long-term planning.

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“It’s really kind of hard to describe what he hasn’t done, because there’s very little that he hasn’t done,” Manager Jim Tracy said. “He has pretty much performed in every phase of the game that you can possibly think of: offense, defense, big at-bats and driving in big runs. This guy is a complete baseball player, and he’s been as valuable as any guy out there.

“He really gets the game of baseball in its entirety, and he’s about a step or two ahead of what’s going to happen next, when some of us haven’t given thought to what’s going to happen next. The best way of putting it is that this is a guy who has been given an opportunity to prove a point, and he’s sending the message loud and clear.”

Teammates have noticed.

“Everything he’s doing for the team is great,” said Izturis, who turned the inning-ending double play in the eighth to help preserve the one-run lead. “We’re winning right now, and he’s been outstanding.”

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Hideo Nomo (5-4) had another clutch performance in beating Marlin starter Brad Penny (2-3), who also pitched well. Eric Gagne overwhelmed the Marlins for the third time in as many days, needing only 15 pitches to strike out the side in the ninth for his third save of the series and 15th in as many opportunities.

Nomo singled up the middle with two out in the second and scored on Cora’s triple, and again displayed his mettle in seven innings against the Marlins (19-26). Florida had the leadoff batter on against Nomo in every inning except the fifth, but the right-hander got tougher each time and the Dodgers helped defensively.

With the Marlins trailing, 2-1, in the sixth, Juan Encarnacion doubled to start the inning. Brian Jordan, playing center with Dave Roberts on the disabled list, raced to right-center to make a sliding catch and rob Mike Lowell. Derrek Lee grounded out and Todd Hollandsworth flied out to end the inning.

“He’s a warrior,” pitching coach Jim Colborn said of Nomo, who threw 72 strikes in 109 pitches. “He’s the perfect example of a pitcher who’s always at his best when he’s in a jam.... To me, that’s one of the main criteria for a winning pitcher.”

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