Billingsley emerging as Dodgers' ace
LOS ANGELES -- The story is becoming repetitive, especially with a month to go in a season in which conventional wisdom would suggest the Los Angeles Dodgers are going nowhere. But repetitive is the one thing Chad Billingsley has never really been in his career until now, so the Dodgers will gladly take it.
Continuing a second half in which he appears to finally be blossoming into that legitimate, front-of-the-rotation starter the Dodgers always believed he would be, Billingsley sailed through eight fairly sweat-free innings -- the two runs he allowed unearned and one of the two hits he allowed a seeing-eye job that never found its way out of the infield -- and the Dodgers played spoiler to the playoff-minded San Francisco Giants in a 4-2 victory before 43,046 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
It was Billingsley's ninth consecutive start in which he allowed no more than three runs, with three of those starts having been against a Giants team that hasn't scored an earned run off him in any of them. Call it repetitive if you will. Call it monotonous, maybe even boring. For their part, the Dodgers will call it consistency, the one thing Billingsley had struggled so mightily for so long to find in his career.
He may not have found many wins, a consequence of playing for a team that rarely offers much in the way of run support. But there is no question he has found that consistency.
"At the beginning of the year, I was trying to figure out what kind of pitcher I wanted to be," Billingsley said. "I stopped worrying so much about moving the ball around [the zone] and just got back to what I do best, which is rely on a good four-seamer and use my curveball once in a while."
Against the Giants, Billingsley was using all his pitches, including a changeup catcher Rod Barajas said he couldn't remember calling for even once in Billingsley's previous start, a typically hard-luck loss on Saturday night at Colorado.
"When a pitcher can throw four pitches any time he wants in any location, he's going to be pretty tough to beat," Barajas said.
Billingsley also delivered the game-winning hit -- a two-out, bases-loaded single off Barry Zito that broke a 2-2 tie -- after the Giants intentionally walked Barajas to get to him in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Billingsley (11-8) gutted his second-half ERA to 2.66, and that includes his first start after the break, a four-inning, seven-run disaster at St. Louis. Eliminate that one, and he has posted a 1.79 ERA in nine subsequent starts.
Oh, and he has given up exactly one home run since May 31.
Compare that to Billingsley's second-half performance last year, when he came out of his first career All-Star selection and promptly went 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA, leading to questions about his toughness and durability and earning him a spot in the bullpen during the playoffs.
"He has a really good look in his eye right now," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "As opposed to trying to throw strikes, he is just letting it go. It sounds simple. So much was made of him having high pitch counts early in games that it looked like he was just trying to throw strikes, which he can't be doing. He has to throw the pitch and just know that is enough, know it's going to find its way.
"Again, the last couple of months, he has been terrific."
With a little luck, and a little more run support, Billingsley might have something better than a 4-4 record to show for that second-half resurgence. Then again, with a little more offense, the Dodgers (69-66) might have something better than the longest of long shots of making the playoffs. As it is, though, they remain mired in fourth place in the National League West, eight games behind, and they wouldn't be that close if the division-leading San Diego Padres weren't in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.
By the way, the Dodgers are now as far back in the wild-card standings as they are in the division, with 27 games to go in the regular season.
But if there is hope on the horizon, Billingsley is one of the biggest reasons why. The Dodgers tried to interest him in a multiyear contract last winter, but the sides ultimately settled on a one-year, $3.85 million deal that avoided arbitration, and that turned out to be a good decision on Billingsley's part. Given the season that he has had, he figures to command a sizable raise through the arbitration process this winter.
More importantly, there is now reason to believe that whatever stratospheric figure the Dodgers end up paying him in 2011, Billingsley could prove to be worth every penny. In a rotation that presently consists of him, Clayton Kershaw and three potential free agents, the one thing that seems certain is that the Dodgers will rely heavily on Billingsley to be something approximating an ace.
At the moment, he would appear to be up to the challenge.
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Barajas, the catcher the Dodgers wouldn't have needed if Russell Martin hadn't been lost for the season a month ago with a labral tear in his right hip, hit a two-run homer off Giants left-hander Barry Zito with two outs in the bottom of the second, a no-doubt shot into the pavilion in straightaway left field.
Barajas, the 12-year veteran whom the Dodgers picked up from the New York Mets on a straight waiver claim Aug. 22 to be their primary catcher for the rest of the season, has now hit four home runs in eight games for the Dodgers. That is one fewer than the five home runs Martin hit in 97 games for the Dodgers this season before going down.
Barajas now has eight RBIs in a Dodgers uniform, just less than one-third of Martin's season total of 26.
Barajas was hit on the left elbow by a pitch leading off the seventh, and although he obviously was in severe pain, he stayed in and caught the rest of the game.
By the way, Barajas is now hitting .375 (9-for-24) since coming to the Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for in Norwalk.
If the Dodgers needed any proof that newly activated shortstop Rafael Furcal was fully healthy after he spent the past month sidelined with a lower-back strain, they didn't have to wait long for a definitive test.
With Pat Burrell on first and nobody out in the top of the second, Giants right fielder Jose Guillen hit a smash toward left field, far to Furcal's right. But Furcal went into an all-out dive and snared the ball on one hop, then quickly threw from his knees to force Burrell at second. Second baseman Ryan Theriot then pivoted and looked at first, but held onto the ball because it was too late to get Guillen.
Not that it mattered. Bolstered by Furcal's play, Billingsley came back to get Buster Posey on a called third strike and induced a foul pop from Pablo Sandoval, ending the inning and keeping the game scoreless. The Dodgers took the lead in the bottom of the inning.
Furcal, by the way, also committed a costly error when he couldn't pick up Freddy Sanchez's grounder leading off the fourth, leading to a pair of unearned runs for the Giants. At the plate, Furcal went 1-for-4, lining a single to center in the seventh.
By the numbers
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42--double plays grounded into by the Dodgers this year with runners in scoring position and less than two outs after they did it twice on Friday night against the Giants. Matt Kemp, swinging at the first pitch after a walk to Andre Ethier, did it with runners on second and third to end the first inning. Ryan Theriot then did it with runners on first and second to end the seventh. In all, the Dodgers went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, Reed Johnson popping up with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth before an intentional walk to Barajas and a two-out, two-run single by Billingsley that eventually proved to be the game-winning hit.
Quote of the day
"I have been very satisfied with Matt's level of attention and devotion to the game the last three or four weeks. He has been working at it. I know he has been mortified by what has happened the last couple of times around the bases. He is going to hopefully use this year as a learning process. I think we'll have to wait and see." -- Dodgers manager Joe Torre on the oft-criticized Kemp, who either missed second base or thought he missed second base in two consecutive games against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday and Wednesday and consequently was forced to backtrack. The first time was inconsequential, coming as it did on a two-run homer by James Loney. But the second came on a ball Loney hit off the wall and appeared to force Loney to settle for a single, although Loney later said the ball came off the wall so hard and so directly toward Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth that he probably wouldn't have tried for second anyway.
Left-hander Ted Lilly (8-9, 3.59) has a remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6-1 since being traded to the Dodgers by the Chicago Cubs on July 31, but for the entire season he is tied for the third most home runs given up in the National League with 25. Giants right-hander Matt Cain (10-10, 3.11) finally got a win against the Dodgers on Aug. 1, pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings, the first time he had beaten them in 15 career starts.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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