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Sunday, May 16, 2010
Updated: May 17, 11:28 AM ET
Dodgers' Achilles' heel strengthens

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

SAN DIEGO -- If we have learned nothing else from these Dodgers over the years, from all the times they have started quickly, started slowly, gotten hot at the right time, cooled off at the wrong time, sprinted to the finish or limped to the end -- but still finding the playoffs -- we should have learned this:

They are nothing if not schizophrenic.

Chad Billingsley
Chad Billingsley's turnaround has been one reason the Dodgers are dominant once again on the mound.

And so, here they are again, less than two weeks removed from having done such an uncanny impersonation of a train wreck through the first month of the season, and suddenly they are doing a pretty fair imitation of, well, the 2008 and 2009 versions of themselves. They completed their first perfect road trip of six or more games in almost four years on Sunday by squeaking past the San Diego Padres yet again, this time 1-0 before a sellout crowd of 42,327, the vast majority of which seemed to have come down from Los Angeles to root for the visitors.

And the primary reason for that early-season slide -- specifically, starting pitching -- has suddenly become the Dodgers' biggest strength, Chad Billingsley continuing that trend as well as his own recent resurgence by shutting out the Padres on four hits over 7 1/3 innings, all while throwing an uncharacteristically efficient 95 pitches.

It marked the first time Billingsley has pitched beyond the sixth inning in any start since last July 5, when he also did it on the road against the Padres.

Suddenly, the third-place Dodgers (20-17) have won seven in a row, have pulled within two games of the division-leading Padres in the National League West, and seem to have at least four starting pitchers that they can actually count on. The quartet of Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda and rookie John Ely have gone a combined 7-2 with a 3.16 ERA thus far in May. The bullpen, meanwhile, has allowed two earned runs in 17 2/3 innings during the winning streak, a collective ERA of 1.02.

Offensively, the Dodgers are averaging 5.3 runs a game during the streak, which began the day after they were shut out by Colorado's Jhoulys Chacin and two relievers on May 8.

"They are walking around feeling good about themselves in sort of a workmanlike way," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "They don't think they have accomplished anything, but they are a lot more confident with what is going on. We didn't want to lose both [Rafael] Furcal and [Andre] Ethier [to injuries], but those guys have been supported by everybody else on this ballclub. We feel we are going to play a quality game, and what that gets us, we'll see. It certainly comes down to how we pitch, and we certainly pitched well this weekend."

Trends

Chad Billingsley finally ratted himself out after turning in his best start of the year. Pressed on why he had an ERA of 7.07 through three starts this year but suddenly has a 2.64 in five subsequent starts, the right-hander said he had been trying to get too much sink on his pitches earlier in the season.

"I'm commanding my fastball, staying with my good four-seamer and mixing in the curveball," Billingsley said. "I'm staying with my game plan. [Before,] I was worrying too much about trying to be something I wasn't as far as sinking the ball instead of being aggressive with the hitters."

That more aggressive approach shows clearly in the statistics. Billingsley's walks per nine innings were a full walk higher (4.5) in those first three starts than in the five subsequent ones (3.5). And while he failed to complete six innings in any of those first three, he still threw more than 100 pitches in two of them. He hasn't reached the 100-pitch mark in any of his past five starts, and yet he has completed at least six innings in four of them.

"[Before,] you could tell he was trying to get sink," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "I guess he was watching TV and seeing all the sinkerball guys getting ground balls. But that isn't who he is. I think he went back to what got him here."

On a day when he was opposed by Wade LeBlanc, the Padres' best starter so far this season, and thus had almost no margin for error, Billingsley (4-2) was so dominating that he allowed only one runner to get as far as second base. That came in the second inning, when he gave up a one-out single to Yorvit Torrealba, then walked Will Venable on four pitches before starting Kyle Blanks off 2-0.

That elicited a mound visit from Martin.

"I just told him, 'Bills, we're all good,'" Martin said. "'We're just one quality pitch from getting out of this, so let's go get 'em.' But it was really just him bearing down. Mound visits are overrated."

Maybe so, but Billingsley came back with three consecutive strikes to strike out the strikeout-prone Blanks -- he has now taken the walk of shame back to the dugout 45 times in 116 plate appearances this season. Tony Gwynn followed with what might have been a single through the right side if not for a spectacular, lunging play by first baseman James Loney to his right, ending the inning and probably saving a run.

Billingsley finished with a flourish, retiring the final six batters he faced before Torre lifted him with one out in the eighth because he wanted lefty Hong-Chih Kuo to face the dangerous Matt Stairs, who was hitting for the pitcher. Padres manager Bud Black dutifully countered by pulling Stairs back and replacing him with righty-hitting Oscar Salazar, and Salazar dutifully responded by popping up.

Kuo then got Everth Cabrera to ground to third, ending the inning. Jonathan Broxton pitched a perfect ninth for his seventh save.

Key moments

Loney also made a second stellar defensive play to his left behind Broxton in the ninth, taking a double away from Adrian Gonzalez. The two plays took the sting out of an 0-for-4 afternoon at the plate in which Loney failed to hit a ball out of the infield.

"I didn't bring my bat today, but I brought my glove," Loney said. "So I guess it all worked out all right."

Reed Johnson, playing right field on a day when Ethier was out with an injury and Manny Ramirez was resting, also made two nice catches.

Quote of the day

"You can go 1-for-4 every day of the season and still hit .250." -- Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, downplaying the importance of his 11-game hitting streak, which he extended by driving in the only run of the game with a sixth-inning single.

Martin followed Jamey Carroll's leadoff walk against Wade LeBlanc in the sixth and Billingsley's well-executed sacrifice bunt with a sharp single up the middle, just under the glove of a diving second baseman David Eckstein. Carroll scored without a throw.

Martin is hitting .304 (14-for-46) during his streak.

Looking ahead

The Dodgers will get their first look at the Houston Astros this season when the two teams kick off a two-game series at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. Rookie right-hander John Ely (1-1, 3.86), who has been solid in his first three major league starts and outstanding in the past two, will go for the Dodgers against lefty Wandy Rodriguez (2-4, 4.81), who is off to a rough start after winning 14 games last season.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.