LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers in the first half have pretty much fulfilled expectations, good and bad.

The pitching's been good, the offense and defense haven't. Catcher Russell Martin really is special, and the bullpen is virtually unbeatable, but other teams' concerns about Jason Schmidt's shoulder proved valid.

Not as predictable was the offensive decline of Nomar Garciaparra.

Cumulatively, the pitching was good enough to cover up the warts and kept the club competitive throughout. Brad Penny emerged as a first-half ace again, Derek Lowe pitched better than his stats appear and Randy Wolf did well for a No. 3 pitcher on the rebound from elbow surgery.

When the offense was able to scrounge enough runs for a lead, the bullpen protected it reliably. But Ned Colletti is well into his second season as general manager and is still looking for a bat that can make a difference.

Perhaps it will be James Loney, who was finally given a chance after the club suffered through the most prolonged slump of Garciaparra's career. Maybe it will be Matt Kemp, although his path to playing time has been similarly blocked by the free-agent signing of Juan Pierre.

Maybe, again, Colletti will go with Plan B and load up with pitching. He tends to do that.

Club MVP: Martin is an All-Star in his first full Major League season and can beat the opposition in more ways than any Dodgers catcher since John Roseboro.

Call him 'Ace': Penny outdid last year's first half which earned him the All-Star Game start, and the only question is whether he can keep it going in the second half, which he didn't do last year.

Greatest strength: The back end of the bullpen -- closer Takashi Saito, setup man Jonathan Broxton and lefty Joe Beimel -- made late-inning leads virtually bulletproof.

Biggest problem: The offense lived down to preseason concerns about a lack of power and was been hampered by the slumping Garciaparra, who remained in the critical No. 3 hole for nearly three months.

Biggest surprise: Considering Garciaparra's slump, the biggest surprise is that it took so long to give Loney a chance.

Team needs: A power hitter to take over for Jeff Kent, but the club also either needs better starts from the back end of the rotation or replacements.

Oh, doctor
• Schmidt -- He gave them one win in what could challenge for the worst contract signing since Darren Dreifort.
• Rafael Furcal -- The sprained ankle he suffered in Spring Training has never healed and probably won't until the winter, robbing him of quickness and the offense of last year's best weapon.
• Jason Repko -- He's healing fast from serious hamstring surgery, but whether he can return this year (or ever regain his running game) is unknown.
• Hong-Chih Kuo -- He was destined to be the fifth starter, but shoulder problems delayed it for two months.
• Marlon Anderson -- He needed two elbow operations since his unexpected September contributions and even that couldn't save his job.
• Chin-hui Tsao -- Taken off the scrap heap, he's shown real promise when he's healthy, but his history in that area is really shaky.
• Ramon Martinez -- A quality utility man, his bat hasn't looked the same this year, but his back injury is considered manageable.
• Yhency Brazoban -- Out for the year again, this time with shoulder surgery a year after Tommy John elbow reconstruction.
• Kemp -- Came back slugging after a slight shoulder separation, but playing time has been hard to come by.

He said it: "What's different [from last year] is that we've now seen most of these top prospects play at the big-league level, and from what we've seen, it's tougher to trade them." -- Colletti

Mark your calendar: July 19-22 vs. New York Mets; Aug. 10-12 at St. Louis; Aug. 24-26 at New York Mets; Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at San Diego; Sept. 11-13 vs. San Diego; Sept. 14-16 vs. Arizona; Sept. 21-23 at Arizona.

Fearless second-half prediction: Colletti again will come up empty in the search for a bat and again will load up on pitching by trading for a starter, returning Chad Billingsley to the bullpen.