SAN DIEGO -- It wasn't Kirk Gibson, it wasn't the World Series, it wasn't Dodger Stadium, and it wasn't even the ninth inning. But it was a critical juncture in a critical game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it did involve arguably their most valuable offensive player coming off the bench in a physically debilitated state and playing the hero.
When Andre Ethier emerged from the visiting dugout to pinch hit for Chad Billingsley, much like Gibson on that long-ago night, just the sight of him was enough to elicit a loud ovation from the unusually large percentage of the crowd that was rooting for the Dodgers.
Scratched from the starting lineup less than an hour before game time because of what sounded like the same stomach ailment teammates Jonathan Broxton and Brad Ausmus had battled to some degree within the past week, Ethier dragged himself to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the seventh inning and drove a two-run single up the middle, just past a diving Everth Cabrera.
And that was plenty for the Dodgers, who were able to bring home a desperately needed 2-0 win over the division-leading San Diego Padres before 39,897 on Tuesday night at Petco Park.
Ethier clapped his hands once in celebration after reaching first base. He was subsequently stranded there, then returned to the comfort of the clubhouse. After the game, he left the ballpark without talking to reporters -- which, under the circumstances, was perfectly understandable on an evening when his bat had done most of the talking and his stomach apparently had done the rest of it.
"Before the game, he was going to play," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "But he was lying on the table, and he didn't take batting practice on the field. He did take BP in the cage. He was feeling in and out with this thing, and especially with the case of the shorts we have on our bench, the one thing I didn't want to do, and I explained this to him, was I didn't want him to start the game and come out in the fifth inning. I would have been really hamstrung by that. I would rather have him on the bench."
Because Torre did have Ethier on the bench, the Dodgers (54-48) were able to take this tense, tightly contested opener of a three-game series and the first in a 10-game stretch in which the Dodgers and Padres will play seven times. The third-place Dodgers moved to within five games of the Padres in the National League West.
The Dodgers are now 5-1 against the Padres and 25-8 against the NL West, two reasons why it is far too early to count them out of a possible third consecutive division title.
Ethier's game-winning hit came in the midst of a managerial chess match that had Torre calling checkmate on savvy but less-experienced Padres skipper Bud Black.
With two outs in the inning, the Dodgers got consecutive singles from Blake DeWitt and Garret Anderson, DeWitt aggressively taking third on Anderson's hit. That brought up Russell Martin, with Billingsley on deck at a time when Billingsley (9-5) was working on a three-hit shutout through six innings and had retired nine of the previous 10 batters.
Although it forced Anderson into scoring position, the Padres opted to intentionally walk Martin -- a decision Padres starter Jon Garland later claimed as his own, independent of Black. Whoever made the call, it appeared to be a shrewd one, because it forced Torre to make a decision whether to stick with the sizzling Billingsley or go to his bench in an effort to finally break a stalemate that was threatening to drag on deep into the night.
But with Hong-Chih Kuo available for two innings, Torre never hesitated.
"[Trainer] Stan [Conte] told me at one point that [Ethier] wasn't doing too good," Torre said. "But when I saw him come out to the bench in the fifth or sixth inning, I felt better."
Like Torre, Black had a lefty warming in the 'pen. But despite the fact the left-handed-hitting Ethier was batting just .234 against left-handers this season, Black never left the dugout, letting Garland determine his own fate.
"This was Jon's game," Black told reporters after the game.
Except that it wasn't. Because after Ethier took two pitches, one for a strike and one for a ball, he drove Garland's final pitch of the evening into center field, at which point it became the Dodgers' game.
Billingsley, who until now had been plagued throughout his five big league seasons by maddening inconsistency, appears to be finding a groove of the sort he has never had previously. The big right-hander shut out the Padres on three hits over six innings, this on the heels of his complete-game, five-hit shutout of San Francisco on July 21.
Billingsley had allowed no runs in two consecutive starts only once previously in his career: in his rookie season of 2006, when he did it on July 13 at St. Louis and July 18 at Arizona. Even so, he combined for 12 shutout innings in those games, far short of the 15-inning scoreless streak he will take into his next start, probably against these same Padres on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
That is, unless Torre decides to bring him back on three days' rest Saturday at San Francisco, a game for which the Dodgers need a spot starter. That is an idea Torre indicated he was leaning against before the game, but he said he would wait to see how this start went before completely ruling it out. Billingsley threw just 84 pitches against the Padres.
In some ways, this performance by Billingsley was every bit as impressive as last week's shutout. All three of the hits he gave up were in the fourth inning, when he escaped a colossal jam. Other than that, he pitched five no-hit innings, retiring at least the first two batters in all five of them.
As for that jam, it was the result of three consecutive singles to start the inning by Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Hundley and Yorvit Torrealba, loading the bases with nobody out. But Will Venable followed with a sharp grounder, and Blake DeWitt, charging, never hesitated in throwing home. The throw was high and to the third-base side of the plate, pulling catcher Russell Martin off, but Martin managed to tag Gonzalez as he slid by for the first out.
Tony Gwynn then popped up, and Billingsley got Cabrera to take a called third strike.
"I just wanted to get that first guy out," Billingsley said. "After that, I was trying to get a ground-ball double play and get out of the inning. We were able to get a fly ball to shallow center field. After that, I just needed one more out to get out of the inning.
"Getting ahead of hitters was the key to getting out of that inning."
By the Numbers
25 -- consecutive scoreless innings by the Dodgers pitching staff, including back-to-back shutouts of the New York Mets on Sunday and the Padres on Tuesday night. The Mets also failed to score in the final seven innings of Saturday's 13-inning marathon. The two runs the Mets scored in the fifth inning of that game are the only two runs the Dodgers have allowed in their past 32 innings. That stingy streak has allowed the Dodgers to win five of their past six games despite scoring two, two, one, three, one and two runs, respectively, in those six games.
By the Numbers II
2 -- games this season in which Broxton has finished off a victory over the Padres by striking out Matt Stairs, the second coming on Tuesday night when he came back from a 3-0 count to get Stairs swinging at a 98 mph fastball. Stairs, then with Philadelphia, haunted Broxton in Game 4 of each of the past two NL Championship Series, hitting a moonshot home run off him to break an eighth-inning tie in 2008 and drawing a four-pitch walk from a visibly tentative Broxton to start a game-winning, ninth-inning rally by the Phillies in 2009.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (8-8, 3.48) has allowed one run on nine hits over 14 innings since the All-Star break, limiting opposing hitters to a .184 average. Left-hander Clayton Richard (7-5, 3.57), whom the Padres acquired from the Chicago White Sox in last year's trading-deadline deal involving Jake Peavy, has posted a 7.13 ERA (19 earned runs, 24 innings) in four starts this month after posing a 2.74 ERA (31 earned runs, 102 innings) in his previous 16 starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.