- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- At a point in their season when they were desperate for something positive to happen, the Los Angeles Dodgers got almost everything they were looking for from Chad Billingsley on Monday night. In his first start after being activated from the disabled list, the right-hander appeared to have no problems, either with his formerly strained right groin or his game plan against the San Francisco Giants.
At a point when he hadn't won a game in more than a month, Billingsley didn't exactly get what he was looking for. But thanks largely to what he gave them, the Dodgers did get their much-needed victory, 4-2 over the Giants before 34,626 at AT&T Park.
The Dodgers, whose recent offensive struggles seemed to be behind them after they had scored at least six runs in three of their previous four games, ran into another wall, this time in the form of veteran Giants lefty and former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito. It wasn't that Zito dominated them. It was just that every time he needed to make a big pitch, he managed to do so, the Dodgers stranding a runner in scoring position in three of the six innings he pitched.
It was for that reason that Billingsley was left with another no-decision after giving up the tying run on a two-out, sixth-inning single by Aubrey Huff, the penultimate batter he faced before completing his performance by getting Juan Uribe to fly out to right field, stranding runners on the corners.
"I know I wasn't going to let anybody else allow that run to come in," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of his decision to let Billingsley pitch to Uribe with Ramon Troncoso warming up in the bullpen. "That was his batter. He just battled. That looked like the old Billingsley to me."
Billingsley gave up five hits, three of them in that fateful sixth inning and all of them singles except for a pop fly by Travis Ishikawa that fell just inside the foul line between a hard-charging Manny Ramirez and a back-peddling Rafael Furcal with one out in the sixth, jumpstarting that game-tying rally for the Giants.
All in all, though, it was a triumphant return for Billingsley, even if the triumph itself went to reliever Jeff Weaver (5-1).
"It felt good to get back out there, definitely," Billingsley said. "The first inning, I was just kind of amped up, and I couldn't really find my rhythm. But once I settled down, I got into a good rhythm and started feeling a little bit more comfortable out there."
Billingsley didn't figure to have much of a margin for error on a night when Torre rested four regulars against Zito.
Center fielder Matt Kemp (for the second game in a row) and catcher Russell Martin, both of whom have been slumping, and first baseman James Loney and second baseman Blake DeWitt, both of whom are left-handed hitters, all sat against Zito. Replacing them in the lineup, respectively, were Reed Johnson, A.J. Ellis, Ronnie Belliard and Jamey Carroll.
But if Billingsley's job was to keep the Dodgers (41-35) in the game and give them a shot to win, he did that and more. Although he walked the first batter of the game, Giants center fielder Andres Torres, leading to a run, Billingsley quickly settled in after that, facing the minimum from the second through the sixth inning. He continued a resurgence that began before his injury and offered more evidence that he has taken a gigantic step forward in this, his fifth season in the major leagues.
"Chad was great," Ellis said. "He really battled. I don't think he had his best stuff, and his fastball command wasn't what we wanted it to be. But he competed and made pitches when he had to. For him to get through six innings against that tough lineup over there in his first game back, that was really encouraging."
Even more encouraging for the Dodgers was that they leapfrogged the Giants into second place in the NL West and moved within four games of the division-leading San Diego Padres while improving to 19-5 against N.L. West opponents.
Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who has struggled mightily at times this season, isn't struggling at the moment. After extending his hitting streak to six games with a single off Zito in the fourth, Blake got a bigger hit in the eighth at the end of an epic, eight-pitch at-bat against Giants reliever Santiago Casilla (1-2).
On a 3-2 count, Casilla threw Blake a belt-high fastball clocked at 97 mph on the ballpark meter, and Blake got all of it, depositing it several rows deep over the left-field wall. The two-run blast, Blake's eighth home run of the season, broke a 2-2 tie.
"This game is weird," Blake said. "I didn't feel like I saw the ball better on that [last] pitch. Maybe your eyes adjust or your body adjusts, I don't know. Maybe you're just a millisecond quicker or something."
Blake is hitting .375 (9-for-24) during his hitting streak, and the home run was his first since May 26, ending a drought of 98 plate appearances.
With the score tied 2-2, Weaver got into immediate trouble after entering the game to begin the seventh inning, giving up singles to Pat Burrell and Pablo Sandoval to put runners on the corners with none out.
Edgar Renteria then hit a high pop to shallow right field, not nearly deep enough for pinch runner Aaron Rowand to try to score. But Sandoval, apparently thinking Rowand would break off third and Ethier would throw through, broke from first. Instead, Ethier made a perfect throw to the cutoff man, first baseman Ronnie Belliard, who immediately threw to shortstop Rafael Furcal covering second.
After a quick check of Rowand, Furcal easily ran down Sandoval and tagged him out, completing the double play.
Blake, who would play the hero in more ways than one on this night, then made a diving stop to his left to take a hit away from Bengie Molina, robbing the Giants of the go-ahead run.
By the Numbers
5--double plays turned by the Dodgers, including three of the conventional grounded-into variety and two others that were a bit more creative -- the aforementioned rundown play after Renteria's pop fly and a strikeout-caught stealing to end the second, also with Renteria at the plate. The five DPs tied a Los Angeles Dodgers record, the 11th time they have accomplished the feat and the first since Sept. 4, 2007, against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The all-time franchise record is six, set by the Brooklyn Dodgers on Aug. 5, 1956, against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Quote of the Day
"I think the only person who wasn't panicky was Kuo. It wasn't the plan for all three of us to go out there. I was just trying to get him back in the strike zone. But he was the one saying, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.' He was great. He has been through so much in his career that, by comparison, this wasn't much." -- Ellis, on a ninth-inning meeting at the mound between him, closer du jour Hong-Chih Kuo, Blake and Furcal in the ninth inning at a point when Kuo had issued a one-out, four-pitch walk to Juan Uribe and missed with his first pitch to Rowand.
Kuo's ninth inning felt eerily similar to Jonathan Broxton's disaster against the New York Yankees on Sunday night. There was a seven-pitch at-bat by Rowand that ended in a base hit to right field, putting runners on the corners with one out. And then, there was an eight-pitch at-bat by pinch hitter Buster Posey in which Posey fouled off two 3-2 pitches.
But Posey finally swung and missed at a fastball, and Renteria then flied to right on the first pitch to end the game and seal Kuo's second save of the season on his 22nd pitch.
Rookie right-hander John Ely (3-5, 3.86) will be looking for his first win in more than a month after losing each of his past three starts and each of his past four decisions. However, he was outstanding on his way to a hard-luck loss in his most recent start, on Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Angels, when he allowed just one earned run on three hits over seven innings.
Right-hander Matt Cain (6-6, 2.72) goes for the Giants. He is 0-7 in 13 career starts against the Dodgers despite a semi-respectable 4.13 ERA in those games. The Dodgers are the only team in the NL West that Cain has never beaten.
Also, Torre said after the game that Kemp will return to the lineup on Tuesday.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com