Commentary

Billingsley puts aside concerns in win

Pitcher looks calm and collected in his season-opening start at Pittsburgh

Updated: April 9, 2010, 11:19 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

PITTSBURGH -- When first approached by reporters after Thursday's game, Chad Billingsley tried to play it straight, tried to answer questions in colorless cliches and rehearsed recitations about what a fantastic afternoon it had been for the Dodgers, not just for him. Before long, though, he couldn't stop himself from cracking a smile and opening up, the conversation eventually morphing into laughter over the fact both Billingsley and a radio reporter who travels with the team were wearing identical black suits and lavender shirts for the upcoming flight to South Florida.

For the most part, there had been no discernible sign of the scared, uptight version of Billingsley. Not in the clubhouse after the game. And not on the mound during it.

[+] EnlargeChad Billingsley
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicChad Billingsley had a successful first start for the Dodgers by battling his way out of trouble several times in 5 1/3 innings.

In getting the Dodgers started toward their first win of the season, a 10-2 pasting of the Pittsburgh Pirates before 9,352 at PNC Park, Billingsley hadn't exactly been flawless. He still struggled with his pitch count, he still walked four batters in 5 1/3 innings, and he still appeared to be fighting himself at times, to the point that manager Joe Torre came out for a fifth-inning chat.

But Billingsley also struck out seven, including the next batter after three of the four walks and the next two batters after one of them. He stranded runners in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings, leaving the bases loaded in the fourth by getting called third strikes on former teammate Andy LaRoche and opposing pitcher Paul Maholm. And even after Billingsley reached the 100-pitch mark in the fifth, Torre sent him back out for the sixth, finally pulling him after he gave up a one-out double to another former teammate, Delwyn Young.

It's far too early to declare Billingsley cured, of course. After all, he pitched his way onto the National League All-Star team the first half of last year before starting a slow descent right after the break from which he never really recovered. But it was a starting point, and while they could have used another inning or two, it was otherwise exactly what the Dodgers needed from him.

Mostly, though, it was exactly what Billingsley needed from himself -- especially after a rough exhibition finale against the Angels ruined what had been a solid spring training for him and raised all those old doubts all over again.

Billingsley was charged with one run, and it didn't even score until after he had left the game. And with the Dodgers having dropped their first two games to the lightly regarded Pirates, Billingsley, for now at least, can carry the label of a stopper. But this is a story that is a long, long way from being told in full, so stay tuned.

Trends

The Dodgers' first win came on a day when Torre rested five of his eight regular position players. The team had gone 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position in the first two games. It went 7-for-12 in this one, banging out 16 hits -- seven for extra bases. But don't expect Torre to stay with this lineup Friday night, when the Dodgers begin a three-game series at Florida.

Key moment

The Pirates stole a tiny bit of momentum in the sixth inning, knocking Billingsley out of the game and scoring their first run on a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter Jeff Clement, cutting the Dodgers' lead to 4-1. But with Maholm out of the game and reliever Hayden Penn struggling, the Dodgers responded with four runs and six hits in the top of the seventh.

Penn gave up hits to each of the first six Dodgers in the inning, including a double by Matt Kemp and a triple by Ronnie Belliard. Only a play at the plate -- Reed Johnson appeared to elude the tag as he slid in trying to score from first on James Loney's single, but Johnson also failed to touch the plate with his hand -- kept a seventh run from scoring.

By the numbers

Each of the first five batters in the Dodgers' order -- Rafael Furcal, Johnson, Kemp, Loney and Belliard -- had at least two hits, with Johnson, Loney and Belliard delivering three apiece.

Belliard just missed hitting for the cycle, hitting a two-run homer in the fifth, an RBI triple in the seventh and an RBI double in the ninth. In addition to his four RBIs, Kemp, Loney and Garret Anderson each drove in two runs.

Scene and (not) heard

The Dodgers narrowly avoided catastrophe on a couple of occasions, both of which appeared to result from a lack of communication on the field.

First, with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Pirates shortstop Bobby Crosby lofted a routine fly ball to left center, about halfway between left fielder Johnson and center fielder Kemp. Keep in mind that left field is usually manned by the virtually immobile Manny Ramirez. Johnson drifted toward left-center, but a hard-charging Kemp wound up catching it and clipping Johnson as he ran by. The result was that both players ended up on the ground, with Kemp doing a faceplant while somehow holding onto the ball for the third out.

Both players quickly got up and jogged off the field.

"That one scared the heck out of me," Torre said. "Matt is used to taking everything, especially with Manny in left field. It looked like Reed was calling for it, but the center fielder is the boss. I'm just glad we got through that."

The second incident came in the bottom of the eighth, when LaRoche hit a high pop fly behind third base. Belliard, subbing for Casey Blake at third, drifted back, and shorstop Furcal drifted over. As Belliard reached for the ball, Furcal appeared to run into Belliard's glove arm, causing the ball to tick off Belliard's glove for his second error of the game.

Again, both players emerged unscathed.

"That was Raffy's ball," Torre said, implying that Furcal should have called Belliard off.

Lost in the shuffle

It wasn't exactly his sort of situation, but Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton finally made his 2010 debut, coming on to pitch the ninth with an eight-run lead. He retired three of the four batters he faced, issuing a one-out walk to pinch hitter John Raynor in Raynor's major league debut. Torre said Broxton was going to pitch in this game regardless of the outcome because he hadn't even pitched in a spring training game since April 2.

Quote of the day

Belliard, who spent most of the past two seasons with the moribund Washington Nationals before being traded to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers at last year's trading deadline, on his role as a utility man: "I'm fine with it. I'm on a winning team. The last two years, this ballclub won the division. Whenever they need me to go out there, I'll be ready. Whatever they want, I'm going to do."

Look ahead

The Dodgers will play their second home opener that isn't their own this week when they begin a three-game series with the Florida Marlins on Friday night. Hiroki Kuroda will make his first start of the season for the Dodgers against Chris Volstad. Kuroda was the Dodgers' Opening Day starter last year and wound up having a respectable season, going 8-7 with a 3.76 ERA, but he missed almost half the season during two stints on the disabled list. Volstad was 9-13 with a 5.21 ERA last year and gave up the fourth-most home runs (29) of any pitcher in the National League.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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