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07/12/09 8:48 PM ET

Dodgers hope to build on strong first half

Los Angeles (56-32) vs. Houston (44-44), 7:10 p.m. PT

MILWAUKEE -- Joe Torre had a good feeling about his team during Spring Training.

Between the loose personality conveyed by the players in the spring and last season's ride to the National League West title, there was no reason for the Dodgers manager not to feel good about the upcoming season.

But a Major League-best 56-32 record and seven-game lead in the division at the All-Star break -- all coming by playing 50 games without one of the best players -- Manny Ramirez -- in the game?

Even the veteran skipper admits he didn't see that coming.

"I think record-wise I'm probably surprised we are where we are," Torre admitted. "But when you watch the way these guys have played day in and day out -- at times they've looked flat, and then all of a sudden in the sixth inning something happens to get us in there. Teams have come back on us a number of times, and we've responded to that."

And responded the Dodgers have, notching 23 comeback wins. Ramirez, who returned July 3, plays his first post-suspension home game Thursday when the Dodgers open the second half.

During the Dodgers' last series of the first half against Milwaukee, Matt Kemp admitted that as a game nears the end and the pressure mounts, it's gotten to the point where the Dodgers almost expect to come out on top.

Andre Ethier agreed, and said much of that confidence stems from last season's run to the NL Championship Series.

"That's just from what we created last year and how we got that feeling," Ethier said. "It's an easy feeling to lose, but at the same time, it's tough to get that grip. Once you do and you're confident as a team, you can hold onto it."

Torre said the game that stands out to him as a microcosm of the season so far was a 7-6, 13-inning win against the Padres in San Diego on July 5.

Up 6-1 entering the bottom of the ninth inning, All-Star Chad Billingsley was going for his 10th win of the season. Billingsley gave up a solo homer and a double, and Torre took him out of the game for one of his other two All-Stars, closer Jonathan Broxton.

Broxton allowed the inherited runner to score, and then gave up three more runs to send the game into extra innings.

But the bullpen combined to throw four scoreless innings -- three by Jeff Weaver -- and James Loney hit a solo homer in the top of the 13th to propel the Dodgers to victory.

"That's huge to win a game like that on the road, especially with the shock of losing the lead we had in the ninth," Torre said. "That just speaks to what these guys have been doing every day."

Torre announced the first four rotation spots for the second half -- Randy Wolf, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda. As for the fifth spot in the rotation, Torre said the No. "5" is written in place of a name.

With left-hander Eric Milton out with what Torre called a "long-term" back injury, possibilities for the final rotation spot include Weaver and Jason Schmidt.

Torre said the ability of those five starters -- whoever the last may be -- to go into the seventh inning is the key for the Dodgers continuing their first-half success throughout the rest of the season.

"Pitching is the name of the game," Torre said. "We're in a position now [where] if we pitch effectively, we shouldn't have extended losing streaks. That's what consistency is all about -- pitching."

Pitching matchup
LAD: LHP Randy Wolf (4-3, 3.45 ERA)
Wolf earned the win in his last start before the All-Star break, holding the Mets to two runs over 6 1/3 innings. He scattered seven hits, striking out three. The left-hander has a .500 record against Houston in his career, going 4-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 12 starts. He took the loss in the Dodgers' 6-5 defeat to the Astros on April 22, giving up four runs in seven innings of work.

HOU: LHP Wandy Rodriguez (8-6, 2.96 ERA)
The left-hander gets the nod to start the second half of the season for the Astros. He's coming of a masterful five-hit shutout of the Pirates on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park in which he struck out 11 batters and walked only one. He has won three of his past four starts and his past three decisions. He faced the Dodgers on April 23 in Houston, giving up five hits and one run in six innings and taking a loss. He's 2-2 with a 3.23 ERA in six career games against the Dodgers, including five starts.

One day after news broke that All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton would miss the All-Star Game because of a sore right big toe, Torre said the injury is one that won't be 100 percent anytime soon. "It's something that he's going to have to deal with, and we're going to have to deal with, [for what] looks like for the rest of the year," Torre said. "He'll get periodic treatment, and from what I'm told from the medical staff, the only thing that's going to help this is rest." ... Taking Broxton's place on the NL All-Star roster was the opposing closer this past weekend, Milwaukee's Trevor Hoffman. He's a Hall of Famer waiting to happen, obviously," Torre said of Hoffman. "To do what he's doing for as long as he does it [is impressive]. That's a position that is usually more of a dash than a marathon, but he's turned that thing into a marathon. The fact that he's made adjustments over the years to remain effective is a real feather in his cap." ... Torre said he expects Ramirez to be near 100 percent when the team begins the second half. "I think when we start the second half he'll be right on it," Torre said. "Although I still think we need to be aware that he's 37 years old and we'll need to give him a blow in there, too."

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Up next
• Friday: Dodgers (Chad Billingsley, 9-4, 3.38) vs. Astros (Roy Oswalt, 5-4, 3.85), 7:10 p.m. PT
• Saturday: Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, 7-5, 3.16) vs. Astros (Mike Hampton, 5-6, 4.52), 7:10 p.m. PT
• Sunday: Dodgers (Hiroki Kuroda, 3-5, 4.67) vs. Astros (Russ Ortiz, 3-4, 4.44), 1:10 p.m. PT

Cash Kruth is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.