- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There was a little more evidence Friday night of the long-awaited maturation of Chad Billingsley. These days, there seems to be a little more evidence of it every time the Dodgers' right-hander takes the mound.
This time, that evidence came with a little help -- or, more specifically, no help at all -- from Manny Ramirez.
At the start of an evening in which the Dodgers would claim a share of first place in the National League West for the first time this season, pulling even with division-leading San Diego in a 4-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers before 44,282 at Dodger Stadium, Billingsley, through no fault of his own, was in immediate trouble.
Austin Jackson, the Tigers' sensational rookie center fielder, began the game by working Billingsley for 10 pitches, fouling off six in a row before finally hitting a high and eminently catchable fly ball to medium-depth left field. But Ramirez, possibly because of lingering effects from the right little-toe injury that had kept him out of the lineup each of the previous two games, or possibly not, jogged after it with a level of urgency generally reserved for a softball game at a family picnic. By the time it hit the ground five feet in front of Ramirez, Jackson was well on his way into second base with a double.
Billingsley, who in the past might have come unraveled after such a development, instead bore down. He did end up charged with an earned run as a result of Ramirez's apparent indifference, Jackson taking third on Ramon Santiago's groundout and scoring on Magglio Ordonez's sacrifice fly. But those two outs began a string of eight consecutive batters retired by the suddenly unflappable Billingsley.
"He was frustrated, because it was a tough at-bat and he ended up giving up a hit," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "But he realized their big guys were coming up, and he had to try to limit the damage. He did a good job. I was really, really happy with the way he threw the ball."
And then, with the Dodgers still trailing 1-0 in the fourth, Ramirez struck again.
This time, it was Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge who sent one his way, a ball that initially looked as if it might carry into the bleachers in left-center. Ramirez trotted back to the track, appeared for a moment to give up on the ball, then stuck out his glove as it came down just in front of the wall. Alas, he didn't stick out his glove in the right place, because he missed the ball, and Inge wound up on second base with a double of his own.
Although Billingsley followed that up by walking Tigers catcher Alex Avila, a .156 hitter with 20 strikeouts in 74 plate appearances, he then got Danny Worth to ground into a force play, ending the inning and stranding Inge in scoring position.
"You just have to keep being aggressive and keep trying to pound the strike zone," said Billingsley, who allowed only one additional runner to get into scoring position during a seven-inning outing in which he held one of the American League's best-hitting lineups to a run and four hits.
The most impressive part of Billingsley's performance, though, might have been this: Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, an early-season frontrunnner for the AL most valuable player award, popped up, flied out and grounded out in three at-bats against Billingsley and is now hitless in 12 career at-bats against him.
"Luck," Billingsley said, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "His numbers speak for themselves. He is a tough out."
And Billingsley (5-2) is suddenly a very tough pitcher. Much like last season, 2010 season has been a dichotomy. Not at all like last season, 2010 has been the good kind of dichotomy. Although he went 1-0 in his first three starts, they were like an extension of his bad dream of a second half last year. He didn't get through six innings in any of them, and he had a 7.07 ERA.
In six subsequent starts, he is 4-2 with a 2.39 ERA.
The turning point was that well-chronicled meeting with manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt the day after Billingsley was knocked around in Cincinnati on April 20. Billingsley lost his next start, five days later in Washington, but he lost it 1-0, and Honeycutt said that was when he saw the first signs of what he is now seeing on a regular basis from Billingsley.
"We saw a more consistent arm slot," Honeycutt said. "We really just wanted him to get back to what he should be, and that was the basics, fastball-curveball. I didn't want him to give up the cutter entirely, and he threw a few of them tonight. But we wanted him to get away from throwing it too much. It was a pitch he was using too much, and with that, he was changing his mechanics sometimes in order to throw it."
By using it now as more of a "show-me" pitch, used on rare occasions just to give the other team something to think about, Billingsley is able to maintain the consistent mechanics he uses to throw all his other pitches. For now, he appears to have hit on that secret formula he had tried for so many years to find. As a result, he has become a pitcher who not only is supremely confident in himself, but who fosters extreme confidence on the part of the rest of the club whenever it is his day to pitch.
Lost in the shuffle
Utility infielder Nick Green, starting at second base in place of left-handed-hitting Blake DeWitt against Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis, picked up his first RBI for the Dodgers when Willis hit him in the foot with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, tying the score at 1-1. Green later got his first hit for the Dodgers, a one-out single in the sixth that not only put Reed Johnson in position to score on Ellis' subsequent single but also chased Willis.
Barring something unforeseen, those Dodgers firsts might also be lasts for Green.
The well-traveled veteran, whose contract was purchased from Triple-A Albuquerque when Rafael Furcal was put on the 15-day disabled list May 4, is the most logical candidate to be the odd man out when Furcal is activated, probably Tuesday. Presumably, the Dodgers will designate him for assignment, and if he passes through waivers unclaimed -- which is far from a certainty because Green is the type of player who would have value to a lot of clubs -- he will have the right to refuse a minor-league assignment and become a free agent.
Torre said before the game that the oft-vacant fifth spot in the starting rotation, which is now vacant again, will be pushed either to Friday or Saturday in Colorado, the fourth or fifth day following Monday's off day. That means Clayton Kershaw (Tuesday), Billingsley (Wednesday) and John Ely (Thursday) all will pitch on regular rest in Chicago and Hiroki Kuroda either will pitch on regular rest on Friday against the Rockies or get an extra day and face the Rockies on Saturday. Torre still hasn't identified the next pitcher to start in the fifth spot, but he did hint Thursday it could be rookie Carlos Monasterios.
Scene and heard
The Dodgers' choice of clubhouse music following a victory has been a rather eclectic mix over the years, everything from a William Hung album that Shawn Green brought in back in 2004 to Casey Blake's frequent playing of Shinedown's Second Chance early last year. But in what might have been the strangest selection of all, the room was filled after this win with the sound of Miley Cyrus belting out Party in the USA. Time will tell if it becomes a standard.
The Dodgers and Tigers will play a late-afternoon game in the shadows. Rookie sensation Ely (2-1, 3.51), who has now faced 84 consecutive batters without issuing a walk, will take the mound for the Dodgers. He will be opposed by Detroit right-hander Armando Galarraga (1-0, 1.59), who will be making his second start of the season after being called up from Triple-A Toledo last week.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.