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Sunday, July 24, 2011
Dodgers take break from reality

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The psychology of sport has always fascinated me, at least since youth baseball when every time I would strike out I would wonder if it meant I couldn't play this game.

It actually did mean that, but for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, everything felt a little different. In an odd way, after a 3-1 victory over the Washington Nationals before 36,458 at Dodger Stadium, everything suddenly felt OK. The Dodgers took two of three to win a series for the first time in the second half of this season and are now face with a chance to move into third place in the National League West with the slumping Colorado Rockies coming to town.

Chad Billingsley
Chad Billingsley only gave up one run in seven innings, and would have been a complete game, but for a shaky first.

Suddenly, it didn't seem to matter that the Dodgers are still heading into the tank, remain 11 games below .500, have lost five of nine since the All-Star break, and they have scored more than three runs in a game just five times this month. After all that, they actually have to sweep that three-game series with the Rockies in order to overtake them in the standings.

All of those things did still matter, of course. They mattered more, in fact, than any of the happy things that had just happened. But in a game in which they say momentum will carry you only as far as tomorrow's starting pitcher will, Chad Billingsley carried the Dodgers to this momentary euphoric state with one of his strongest performances of the season, overcoming first-inning trouble to retire 21 of 22 batters and no-hit the Nationals from the second through the seventh innings.

This is an example of how the psychology of sport can be a godsend when your season is going nowhere and you still are 61 games from the end. If the Dodgers lose to the Rockies on Monday night, they will revert just as quickly to the gloom and despair that has followed them all season. But for the moment, all they can do is try to win each game, and so for the past two days, they did everything they could against the Nationals.

In addition to Billingsley's heroics, the Dodgers got another strong day from their bullpen, when Kenley Jansen ran his consecutive scoreless-innings streak to 14 with a perfect eighth and Javy Guerra, the de-facto closer whom manager Don Mattingly still won't anoint as the actual closer, ran his streak of consecutive saves converted to seven with a perfect ninth. They also got a key hit and an even more key walk from Rafael Furcal, who has reached base six times in 10 plate appearances over the past two games and finally is feeling like himself at the plate, his .180 average notwithstanding.

"I think I'm getting a little more patient," Furcal said. "I'm really staying within the strike zone now and going a little deeper in counts."

Now doesn't all of that make you feel warm and fuzzy about these Dodgers?

No?

Well, that's OK. Because after this game, after Billingsley struck out 10 batters and was taken out to start the eighth only because he had thrown 115 pitches and after Jansen and Guerra continued a stretch in which the bullpen has now retired 18 of 19 batters over the past two games, the Dodgers' clubhouse was a happy place, with music and banter and smiles and a willful disregard of all the negativity that this season has brought thus far.

After all, why let any of that ruin an afternoon on which Billingsley won for the fourth time in his past six starts and pitched well for the fifth time in that stretch, during which he has a sterling 2.04 ERA?

"Bills is always going to be amped up," Mattingly said of the first inning, when Billingsley gave up a walk, a hit batsman and two singles to the first four batters he faced then immediately struck out three consecutive batters with the bases loaded. "He settled down and got to his curveball and just kept changing speeds. He seemed to get better as the game went on, and that was good to see."

Actually, a lot of things were good to see.

Like the way the fourth-place Dodgers (45-56), who remained 13 1/2 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, came right back with two runs in their half of the first to stake Billingsley to a lead.

And the way Billingsley (9-8) made that lead stand up.

And the way Furcal worked a leadoff walk from Jason Marquis (8-5) in the third and then swiped second, just his fourth stolen base of the season, to set up an important insurance run when the Nationals botched what would have been an inning-ending double-play ball by James Loney with the bases loaded.

In a season that appears doomed, there will be plenty of heartache for the Dodgers over its nine remaining weeks. But if the Dodgers do it right, if they keep showing up and fighting and scratching and clawing, there also will be plenty of these euphoric moments, these small victories, these evenings when dinner will taste just a little better and the embarrassment of playing for a bankrupt franchise with an ill-suited owner won't sting as much.

The psychology of sport is funny that way. Outwardly, some players might reject it as a lot of gobbledygook. But inwardly, in the absence of a pennant race, in the absence of truly meaningful games, in the absence of any real semblance of hope, that gobbledygook is what will get you through a long, grueling season.

For the Dodgers, for now, the goal is to make this particular wave of it last as long as they possibly can.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.