With heat on, Dodgers gain ground to start second half

ST. LOUIS -- Two series victories and an above-.500 road trip through the blast furnace of America will suit the Los Angeles Dodgers just fine.

Considering that their adventures started with a series loss at Arizona, the Dodgers are feeling awfully good about leaving Washington and St. Louis with more victories than losses. The exclamation point -- albeit one that started to lean a bit -- was a 9-6 nationally televised game of pinball against the St. Louis Cardinals.

A 5-4 record on the trip might not sound like much, but it moved the Dodgers from 6.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West at the All-Star break, to a three-game deficit with the first homestand of the second half ahead.

Now they come home for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the non-waiver trade deadline, which could yield a starting pitcher or even an outfielder to make sure the improved offense avoids a lull.

That offense, which had been suspect for the first 2½ months of the season, carried the club on the road trip. Justin Turner and Howie Kendrick were the offensive stars, but Adrian Gonzalez and Corey Seager did their parts, even though Seager missed three games on the trip with a stomach virus.

Kendrick extended his hitting streak to 16 games -- second-longest on the club to Seager’s 19-game run -- with a first-inning double and then added a second-inning home run for good measure. The hot-hitting Turner added two more hits as the Dodgers jumped on first-time starter Mike Mayers.

“I’m not really worried about whether I’m locked in or not, as long as we’ve been winning games,” Kendrick said. “It just seems like me and [Turner] were the two guys that were lagging behind most of the season, but he’s been swinging well and I’ve just been trying to follow him.”

Turner went 16-for-41 (.390) on the road trip and hit five home runs with 14 RBIs. Kendrick was a nearly identical 16-for-40 (.400) on the trip and scored nine runs. As the Dodgers kept hitting, the Giants were going 1-7 to open their second half.

“We just have to keep playing good baseball,” Turner said. “Everyone looks up and watches the scoreboard, but you can’t worry what the Giants are going. We just have to play good baseball. We get to play them a few times down the stretch, so if we keep playing good ball we’ll be right where we need to be the next time we see them.”

A steady Gonzalez the rest of the way would help. The veteran got Sunday’s party started with a first-inning grand slam, the 299th home run of his career. He knows all about chasing division leaders in his long career and said now is not the time to get too anxious about it.

“For the most part, we haven’t even talked about the division, where we’re at,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not really something we’re focused on. We’re focused on playing our game, beating the teams we have to beat. Then we can look at it in September and see where we’re at.”

By then, perhaps Clayton Kershaw will be back in the fold. In his absence, the Dodgers have done more than just keep their collective head above water. They are 15-8 since their ace pitcher went down, and that run includes a three-game losing streak and two blown saves from All-Star closer Kenley Jansen on this trip.

“We’ve been playing good baseball for a while,” Gonzalez said. “If we would have won one more on this road trip we would be feeling really good about it. But we’ll take a winning road trip and winning two series against two of the better teams in the league.”

About the only letdown as the Dodgers finally head home is the end of Adam Liberatore’s record appearance streak out of the bullpen. The left-hander had gone 28 appearances without giving up a run, a streak that ended when he was charged with three earned runs Sunday.

“It was a great run and I trust him when he’s out there,” manager Dave Roberts said. “When guys weren’t throwing great, he picked up the slack, getting left-handers out, right-handers out. I put him in a lot of tough spots and for him to go up there, take the ball, and show the confidence and that swagger he has, he was a huge lift for all of us. We’ll start a new streak on Tuesday.”

The heat was on the Dodgers in more ways than one the past 10 days and they emerged in a much better place than when they started things.

“I think we’ve lost some tough ones and obviously the Giants had a tough road trip,” Roberts said. “Our intent every day is pretty consistent. If we can maintain this focus, we’ll be fine."