Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Chad Billingsley sharp for Dodgers
By Tony Jackson
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Chad Billingsley's penultimate start of the spring turned out to be his best to date, the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander finding an early groove and retiring a dozen batters in a row before running out of gas in the sixth inning of a 2-1, 10-inning victory over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday before 7,951 at Camelback Ranch.
Billingsley will pitch one last time, an abbreviated, 60-pitch start Sunday against the Cleveland Indians, before making his regular-season debut April 1 against the San Francisco Giants. But after he threw 94 pitches and six shutout innings Tuesday, it's difficult to imagine him being any more ready than he is.
"Today, I was approaching it as a [regular-season] game," Billingsley said. "I was mixing all my pitches, and I felt good out there. My curveball felt great. I used the changeup a lot and used it effectively. [Catcher] Rod [Barajas] called a great game, and we got on the same page pretty early. We knew what each other was thinking."
Billingsley was a bit erratic early, sandwiching a wild pitch between consecutive one-out hits by Tyler Colvin and Marlon Byrd in the first inning. But Hector Gimenez, who was playing left field for the first time in two years and just the fourth time in his professional career, scooped up Byrd's hit and hit Barajas on the fly to cut down a sliding Colvin at the plate.
Billingsley quickly settled in after that.
Billingsley issued a leadoff walk to Geovany Soto in the second, but that inning ended with Soto on second base when Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster grounded out. That began the string of 12 consecutive batters retired by Billingsley, a streak that didn't end until Byrd singled through the left side with two outs in the sixth.
Billingsley then walked the next two batters, but his scoreless outing was preserved when Xavier Paul made a diving catch in center to rob Jeff Baker of at least a two-run single, ending the inning and Billingsley's afternoon.
"He and [Opening Day starter Clayton Kershaw] have both been able to get their pitch counts up," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That is what we're looking for. He was throwing all his stuff, and he threw the ball well."
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is planning for the pitch counts of Kershaw, Billingsley and fourth starter Hiroki Kuroda to peak this time through the rotation, then to cut them all back in their final appearances of the spring. The exception is No. 3 starter Ted Lilly, who missed a start earlier in the spring because of an illness, so Honeycutt said Lilly's pitch count might peak in his final spring start, which would come in a March 28 exhibition against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium.
Don't count him out
Gimenez is listed on the 40-man roster as a catcher but has been playing mostly first base in the Cactus League. But the fact he was asked to play left field against the Cubs, and probably will be asked to do so again, is a clear sign club officials are taking a much harder look at the offseason minor league free-agent signee than they were early in camp, when Gimenez wasn't expected to be much of a threat to make the opening day roster despite having no minor league options.
There is nothing like a .333 average -- which Gimenez had before going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against the Cubs -- and three homers in 30 at-bats by a guy who hits from both sides of the plate to open previously closed eyes.
"I would think so," Gimenez said when asked if he believed his chance of making the team had improved. "But that isn't something I can be thinking about. All I have to do is come in every day and be ready to play wherever they want me to and let them make the decisions."
At the start of the spring, there were two factors working against Gimenez, whose major league résumé consists of two pinch-hitting appearances for the Houston Astros five years ago. First, the Dodgers already have two experienced catchers in Barajas and Dioner Navarro, and they have no plans to carry three. Second, the Dodgers aren't sold on Gimenez's abilities behind the plate.
"We signed him, really, for his offense," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "He is a pretty good hitter, but his defense is still a work in progress."
In an odd way, though, that could work in Gimenez's favor in terms of a potential roster spot. He is a good-enough hitter that the Dodgers might not want to risk exposing him to waivers, and if team officials don't view him as a catcher but more of a first baseman/outfielder/pinch hitter who switch hits, then they might be more willing to give him that roster spot.
As for his afternoon in left field, Gimenez played eight innings, but the only two balls hit to him were a pair of singles by Byrd, the first of which led to that perfect throw to the plate in the first inning.
"Just getting him out there was the main thing," Mattingly said. "I'm not going to judge him by one game. One thing [first base coach] Davey [Lopes] said was that his footwork was good, and that seems to be the key."
Velez goes down
Eugenio Velez, a non-roster utility infielder who was the longest of long shots to make the club, probably has no chance now. Velez laid down a perfect bunt for a base hit against Cubs reliever John Grabow in the seventh inning, but as the speedy Velez reached first base, he collided with Cubs second baseman Blake DeWitt, who was covering on the play.
Although it isn't clear whether it happened as a result of the collision or of hitting the side of the bag awkwardly, Velez left the game immediately and was taken off the field on a cart. He later was diagnosed with a Grade II sprain in his right ankle, a degree that usually means at least some tearing of the ligament. There was no immediate prognosis for how much time Velez was likely to miss.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite the fact Velez was hitting .212 for the spring, Mattingly insisted Velez still had a chance to make the team.
"He is in the mix," Mattingly said. "He is interesting because of his game. He switch hits, he has that speed, and he is able to play the infield and the outfield."
Velez, 28, logged at least some major league time each of the past four seasons with the San Francisco Giants.
The game ended when a two-out, bases-loaded blooper by minor league camper Orlando Mercado barely eluded a diving Fernando Perez in left field, the difference between a win and a tie for the Dodgers. But the big at-bat of the 10th inning was taken by Kyle Russell, one of the organization's top prospects and its third-round draft pick in 2008. Russell worked hard-throwing Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija for a full count, fouling off three two-strike pitches, before driving Samardzija's ninth delivery off the center-field wall for a one-out double. Russell, who finished last season at Double-A Chattanooga and will go back there to begin 2011, hit 26 homers each of the last two seasons in the minors. ... The Dodgers made one more cut on Tuesday, reassigning non-roster reliever Oscar Villareal to minor league camp after he posted a 10.80 ERA in six appearances. Although he last pitched in the majors in 2008, Villareal is a six-year veteran who could provide bullpen depth sometime during the season. ... Infielder Jamey Carroll, who has been playing on the minor league side the last few days to get at-bats while he has been limited from throwing because of soreness in his right index finger, said he had no trouble throwing Tuesday and feels ready to return to Cactus League action. However, Carroll indicated the medical staff will make the final determination on when he actually does return. ... The Dodgers (10-16-1) play the Chicago White Sox for the final time this spring at Camelback Ranch on Wednesday, with the Sox the designated home team. Lilly will start for the Dodgers against John Danks.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.