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Dodgers start to give chase

They defeat the Marlins, 5-3, for their sixth consecutive victory and move a bit closer in West.

May 02, 2008|Dylan Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Over the course of a single week, the Dodgers' entire outlook has changed.

The lineup that couldn't hit on its previous trip is scoring runs in bunches. The starting pitchers are staying in the game longer. The bullpen has been lights out.

That, and the resurgence of Russell Martin, has translated into a six-game winning streak that the Dodgers will take into Denver today when they face the Colorado Rockies, the team they swept last weekend to start their surge. Two games over .500 for the first time since April 6, the Dodgers are five games behind National League West leader Arizona.

Of the despair they faced only 10 days ago, shortstop Rafael Furcal said, "Everyone here knew it wouldn't stay like that all year."

The Dodgers extended their major-league leading six-game run on Thursday by beating the Florida Marlins, 5-3, at Dolphin Stadium, scoring the go-ahead run in the ninth inning on the very kind of opportunity they failed to convert so often earlier in the year.

Furcal drew a walk to start the inning and moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Juan Pierre. That brought up Matt Kemp, who singled to right against closer Kevin Gregg to score Furcal.

Kemp later scored on a throwing error by second baseman Robert Andino.

"That's going to be important," Manager Joe Torre said. "When you face clubs, in our division especially, where they keep coming at you, pitcher, pitcher, pitcher, you have to learn how to score a run, manufacture, play fundamentally sound baseball."

The Dodgers were one for 22 with runners in scoring position on their previous trip, a five-game disaster in Atlanta and Cincinnati during which they were held to a single run in four games.

In their eight games since, of which they've won seven, the Dodgers are hitting .382 (34 for 89) in those situations. They've averaged 7.4 runs over that span, up from 4.2 in their first 20 games.

The rise of the Dodgers' offense has coincided with the rise of Martin, their All-Star catcher. Martin was hitting only .231 when the Dodgers returned home from Cincinnati, but is 11 for 25 over the last eight contests.

"I feel like my timing's on right now," said Martin, who said in Cincinnati that he was late on fastballs and early on off-speed pitches.

The aggressive baserunning preached by Torre and third base coach Larry Bowa is also paying dividends. The Dodgers entered their game with 24 steals, which tied them for the third-most in the National League. Pierre and Kemp added to the total and both of their steals resulted in runs.

Furcal, who has reached base in every game this season and leads the team with a .371 average, already has seven steals.

The Dodgers received much-needed length out of their starters in their last two games -- Hiroki Kuroda went seven innings on Thursday, the same as Chad Billingsley the previous day -- which has taken pressure off a bullpen that has carried a heavy load.

Even though set-up man Jonathan Broxton was unavailable for the last three games because of a strained muscle in his armpit region, the Dodgers relievers have combined to give up only one earned run in their last 25 innings.

Most encouraging has been the improved form of Takashi Saito. The 38-year-old closer pitched in only six spring training games and didn't come out of the bullpen on a consistent basis early in the season because of a scarcity of save situations, something he said played a part in him blowing two saves.

Saito said he has regained the command of his fastball, which allows him to get ahead in the count and force hitters to chase sliders that are outside of the zone. The improved control, he said, was a credit to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who pointed out in a bullpen session at Dodger Stadium earlier this week that his lower body wasn't properly aligned during his delivery.

"Saito was Saito," Torre said after he closed Thursday's game. "His location, the last two times out, has been right on the money."

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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