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Billingsley continues strong run by pitchers

Times Staff Writer

The Dodgers went into the All-Star break still in search of their identity.

They closed the first half of their season Sunday with a 9-1 victory over the Florida Marlins at Dodger Stadium to move to within a game of first-place Arizona in the National League West, but they remained under .500 at 46-49.

They pounded Andrew Miller for seven runs in the first two innings to prevent a four-game sweep, but the offensive explosion served only as a reminder of what they aren’t doing frequently enough.

“We certainly expected our record to be better,” Manager Joe Torre said, “but we also didn’t expect to be a game out of first place. It’s sort of a mixed bag. In the second half, we have to be more consistent.”

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Salvation for the Dodgers has come in the form of pitching. The Dodgers enter the break with a staff earned-run average of 3.63 that is among the best in baseball. Chad Billingsley struck out a career-high 13 batters over seven innings of one-run ball Sunday, improving his record to 9-8 in the type of performance that has long ceased to be thought of as anything out of the ordinary for a Dodgers starter.

“The pitching staff has risen to the occasion,” third base coach Larry Bowa said. “Without them, we’d be 14, 15 games out.”

They’d be out of contention, Bowa said, because of the inconsistency of the hitters.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with ability,” Bowa said. “It has to do with focus.”

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The Dodgers rank near the bottom in the league in runs, hits, doubles, home runs and runs batted in.

“We’ve got a lot of things we have to improve on -- driving in runs, scoring runs,” outfielder Matt Kemp said.

The young players aren’t the only ones being blamed.

Torre spoke on Sunday morning with Andruw Jones, who tied a franchise record with five strikeouts the previous night.

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Jones, who was 0 for 3 on Sunday, blamed his struggles on returning too quickly from a minor league rehabilitation assignment in an effort to make up for the injury to Juan Pierre and on working on a new upright batting stance. Jones said that on Saturday night, he made the mistake of expecting to see fastballs and, as a result, lunged forward at what turned out to be breaking pitches.

Bowa conceded that losing No. 1 and No. 2 hitters Rafael Furcal and Pierre to the disabled list “kills us.” But he also said that the Dodgers can’t count on them to return.

Opening-day starter Brad Penny remains sidelined and closer Takashi Saito, who had to make a premature exit on Saturday night because of tightness in his elbow, could be added to the DL. He will undergo an MRI exam today.

Jones and Nomar Garciaparra spent a substantial portion of the season hurt and were activated July 4.

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The Dodgers’ young players believe they’re close to turning a corner, in part because they’re becoming used to playing under their new manager.

“We’re getting more accustomed to the style Joe wants,” outfielder Andre Ethier said. “It’s not easy changing in a short period.”

Torre said that he’s also learning about his players -- but, more important, the players are learning about themselves. “They’re finding out their capabilities as individuals,” Torre said.

In other words, what they’re capable of doing and what they’re incapable of doing.

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Torre and Bowa seemed particularly pleased with the progress made by Ethier, who leads the Dodgers with 11 home runs.

Even the ever-demanding Bowa said he drew optimism from the way the Dodgers pounded Miller. Their first six hitters scored in a three-hit, three-walk inning to give Billingsley a 6-1 cushion. The Dodgers extended their lead to 7-1 in the second, when a double by Garciaparra drove in Kemp, who led off the inning with a double.

Kemp was three for four with two runs, two runs batted in and a walk. Garciaparra and second baseman Luis Maza were two for three with a run.

Russell Martin, the Dodgers’ lone representative at the All-Star game on Tuesday, was 0 for 3 but drew a pair of walks and scored a run.

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“It was a rough series for us,” Kemp said, “but we ended on a good note.”

The Dodgers restart their season Friday in Arizona.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

L.A. story

The Angels head into the All-Star break six games ahead of Oakland in the AL West. The Dodgers are 46-49 but only one game behind first-place Arizona in the NL West.

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*--* Arizona 47-48 - Dodgers 46-49 1 San Fran. 40-55 7 Colorado 39-57 8 1/2 San Diego 37-58 10 *--*

*--* ANGELS 57-38 - Oakland 51-44 6 Texas 50-46 7 1/2 Seattle 37-58 20 *--*


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