- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Our eyes tell us we have seen this before. Common sense tells us the same thing. But on Tuesday night, just after a 5-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 47,077 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told us this was something completely different from what our eyes, and our common sense, told us it was.
No, Mattingly said, Chad Billingsley wasn't pitching all that poorly as he was giving up four runs and eight hits over four-plus innings.
"I'm being serious," Mattingly said. "I thought he was throwing the ball better. I'm not saying everything was perfect, but he should have come out of it better. Obviously, we don't like the result, but I liked the way the ball was coming out of his hand. He has been working hard to get back to where he was at the start of the season and get his delivery where it needs to be."
OK, fair enough -- to a point.
Yes, Billingsley has been working with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt lately on a slight mechanical adjustment, and yes, Billingsley said he felt better in that regard during this game -- "It was just a matter of getting my hand out of my glove a little bit sooner. I was drifting toward home, and when I took my hand out of my glove, I had to play catchup with my arm." And yes, as Mattingly was quick to point out, two of the four consecutive singles Billingsley gave up to start the fifth inning, resulting in his early exit, had been a foot or two over from where they were, either one of them might have been a double play.
And OK, even if this was Billingsley's second consecutive start in which he failed to record an out past the fourth inning, this one probably wasn't as frustrating or as discouraging as the other one.
But the definitive moment of this one didn't come in the Diamondbacks' three-run fifth that chased Billingsley. Instead, it came in their one-run second, when something that has plagued Billingsley throughout his seven seasons in the majors jumped up to bite him once again.
After a leadoff double by Jason Kubel that probably should have been a single -- Jerry Sands, playing left field after arriving from Triple-A Albuquerque earlier in the day, took a bad route to the ball -- Billingsley came right back to strike out Ryan Roberts and induce a grounder to third by Lyle Overbay, all without Kubel advancing.
Next came an intentional walk to Aaron Hill to get to the pitcher's spot, a strategy that is at least debatable at such an early juncture, but that was what Mattingly opted to do. And then, Billingsley struck out Wade Miley to end the threat, or so it seemed.
Instead, the pitch on which Miley whiffed bounced away from catcher A.J. Ellis, far enough for Miley to make it to first. Wild pitch. Bases loaded. Inning not over.
Billingsley, looking frustrated and discombobulated, then walked Gerardo Parra on five pitches to force in the Diamondbacks' first run. He then fell behind 3-1 to Willie Bloomquist before ultimately getting Bloomquist to fly to center, finally ending the inning.
We have seen this sort of thing time and again from Billingsley over the years. Our eyes would suggest this represents a loss of focus due to frustration. Common sense would suggest the same thing.
"It could be," Honeycutt said. "You probably hit it right on the head. You can lose that edge you had going. You think you got what you wanted, and then all of a sudden, it's bases loaded. It looks at times like he wants to be too fine. There is a little bit of a trust issue, where somebody is trying to make a perfect pitch instead of just a quality pitch."
And that, in a nutshell, is the Billingsley we have watched over and over again, the one we're still watching to this day. The one who seems to lose focus so quickly and so easily, the one with the tendency to let things snowball. He didn't exactly allow the second inning to get completely out of control, and this time he managed to regroup comparatively quickly. But that edge was lost just long enough for the Diamondbacks to scratch out a critical run, and what ultimately became the winning run.
To be fair, it was a different Billingsley we saw early this year, an improved and confident-looking Billingsley. He had made a mechanical adjustment over the winter, one that had become second nature during spring training, and he was beginning to show signs of the pitcher team officials have always believed he can be, going 2-1 with a 2.64 ERA in his first five starts. But over his past three starts, when he is 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA, he has shown too many flashes of the same, old Billingsley.
Can he correct it? If you buy Mattingly's postgame analysis, which both Billingsley and Honeycutt mostly agreed with, he is on the right track. But it is the all-too-frequent, momentary lapses that so often prove Billingsley's undoing, and that are maybe the last hurdle he must overcome to become a truly solid, reliable major league pitcher.