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Friday, July 8, 2011
Chad Billingsley blossoms in own way

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- To a certain extent, Chad Billingsley has become the forgotten one.

It's not really his fault, mind you. The Los Angeles Dodgers' right-hander, who as strange as it sounds now has to be counted as a major league veteran, simply hasn't blossomed in the way Clayton Kershaw has. Billingsley was the Dodgers' first-round draft pick four years before Kershaw was, and he beat Kershaw to the majors by almost two years. He even became an All-Star a couple of years ahead of Kershaw, but in this coming-of-age summer for the celebrated Kershaw, he is the one who will hop a plane to Phoenix on Sunday night for the All-Star Game while Billingsley won't.

It isn't that Billingsley is having a bad year. Far from it. Barring a complete second-half collapse, he will reach double figures in wins for the fifth consecutive season. His ERA isn't spectacular, but at 3.87, it's solid and perfectly acceptable. He probably walks too many batters, but he strikes out more than twice as many.

Chad Billingsley
Chad Billingsley's friendly rivalry with staff ace Clayton Kershaw seems to be having an effect on his pitching.

Billingsley's anonymity, then, really isn't about Billingsley at all. It's about Kershaw, who is casting a large shadow these days as he carves out a place for himself among the National League's elite starting pitchers.

Every once in a while, though, Billingsley makes us remember him. Makes it impossible for us to ignore him, much less forget him. And on Friday night, in a 1-0 victory over the San Diego Padres before 38,529 at Dodger Stadium, he made us remember why the Dodgers were once so high on him, and why for the most part they still are.

Billingsley's eight shutout innings weren't so much a testament to domination as they were a testament to big pitches. He gave up four hits and walked five batters, two of them intentionally, but he repeatedly managed to dodge bullets and frustrate Padres batters, who went hitless in eight at-bats against him with runners in scoring position and grounded into double plays in the third and fourth innings.

"It was a grind, and I think Chad would be the first one to tell you he didn't have his best stuff the last couple of times out," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "This just shows you the kind of pitcher he has evolved into. He made big pitches when he needed to. He got double-play balls and strikeouts when he needed a big out."

Billingsley, who has been engaged in a friendly, well-publicized competition with Kershaw all season to see who can get the most hits, attacked this game as if he wanted to outpitch Kershaw as well. His performance came on the heels of an almost-identical one by Kershaw the previous evening, when he blanked the New York Mets for eight innings.

Billingsley admitted afterward he and Kershaw feed off each other's success on the mound, too, and it shows: This marks the third time in the last four starting-rotation cycles -- and the fifth time this season -- that Kershaw and Billingsley, who always pitch back-to-back, have combined to give up no more than two runs.

It marks the first time they have combined to allow zero.

"You hope so," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said when asked if the friendly plate rivalry between Kershaw and Billingsley had spread to the mound. "You like competition. It's the kind of thing where anything you can do, I can do too, or I can do better. That type of situation is good as long as it's healthy. Obviously, you don't want one guy rooting against the other guy."

That doesn't figure to ever be an issue with these two. Kershaw is perfectly at ease with the unofficial title of staff ace, and he especially seems to rise to the occasion whenever he is opposed by the other team's No. 1 guy. Billingsley -- and this is by no means a knock against him -- seems more comfortable pitching in Kershaw's aforementioned shadow and is probably better suited to being the second guy in the rotation, a role that is equally important and still carries high expectations but isn't as pressure-packed.

And that is why there is a tendency to forget all about him until it's his day to pitch. If I'm trying to come up with an interesting story idea, Billingsley (8-7) is rarely the guy who comes to mind. If I come to the park in the afternoon thinking about possible news items for the day, there usually aren't any involving Billingsley. And although I have never actually asked him, I get the impression the low-key, soft-spoken Billingsley kind of likes it that way.

But if these Dodgers (39-51) -- who remain in last place in the National League West, 11 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants -- are to have any hope of clawing their way back into this race in the second half, there is no questioning the fact that Billingsley is one of their most important guys.

When I checked with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on Thursday to see if he would reveal to me the second-half rotation beyond Kershaw, who Mattingly already had named to start the opener Friday night at Arizona, Honeycutt wouldn't say much other than he planned for Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda to round out that series against the Diamondbacks, albeit not necessarily in that order.

When Mattingly was asked the same thing before Friday's game, he said he was leaning toward going with Kuroda next Saturday, then Billingsley on Sunday. The effect of that, of course, would be to separate Kershaw and Billingsley for the first time all year, but Kuroda has pitched extremely well of late also, so it wouldn't be crazy to flip them.

Even if that does happen, the competition between the celebrated Kershaw and the unobtrusive Billingsley will continue. And for a Dodgers team that has had so many things go badly this year, that can only be good.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.