Chad Billingsley does it his way
PHOENIX -- You don't know how he does it, but he does it. Does it every year, in fact. And on Friday night, in a 7-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks before 27,215 at Chase Field that vaulted the Los Angeles Dodgers into a third-place tie in the National League West for the first time in almost two months, he did it again.
Chad Billingsley, for the fifth time in his five full seasons in the major leagues, is a double-digit winner.
He did it in typical Billingsley fashion. He was good for a while, great even. He dominated through six innings, never allowing more than one batter to reach base in any of them, while his usually punchless teammates staked him to that rarest of commodities, a six-run lead. He was mostly efficient with his pitches, throwing just 83 of them before he took the mound to begin the seventh.
And then, in a plot twist that has become all too predictable for a pitcher who still hasn't quite become that dominating, front-of-the-rotation starter he always was projected to be, Billingsley had what could have been a momentary hiccup in the form of a leadoff walk to Ryan Roberts in the seventh, then helplessly watched it turn into an avalanche of trouble that someone else had to pitch the Dodgers out of.
Ultimately, though, someone did pitch them out of it -- a handful of someones, actually, from what has become a pretty solid bullpen, and they had help from a spectacular defensive play by celebrated rookie shortstop Dee Gordon -- and Billingsley's 10th win was more or less in the bank, although the first four-out save of Javy Guerra's career was still needed to finish it off.
After that leadoff walk, Billingsley gave up singles to each of the next three batters before manager Don Mattingly came to get him -- the first on an 0-2 pitch, the second on the first pitch and the third, again, on 0-2, a clear sign that Billingsley was overly anxious to make up for the walk by getting quick outs.
"I think there has been a little of that," catcher Rod Barajas said. "We have had some outings where he has been great all the way through, and there have been some outings where he has done really well early and you think he is going to sail through eight innings and only give up one or two runs and he does end up struggling. It's frustrating for him, and it's frustrating for me because we're working together.
"But we know he is out there trying, maybe a little too hard. We just need to try to ease him back and get him to slow down in those situations."
The thing is, Billingsley's win total isn't hollow. He has the other numbers to go with it. His ERA has been stellar most years and at least acceptable every year, and although his current mark of 4.17 stands to be the worst of his career, it is decent by today's standards. He is second on the team to Clayton Kershaw in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched, and he has given up by far the fewest home runs of any of the four pitchers who have been in the team's rotation all year.
So why is he still, after all these years, such an enigma? And why, unless he can somehow go undefeated over the next 7½ weeks, will he also be a double-digit loser for the fourth year in a row? Why does he still so often seem to hit that wall around the 90-pitch mark?
And why doesn't he inspire the sort of confidence when he takes the mound that, say, Clayton Kershaw, who is four years younger, does on his day to pitch?
"For me, what I have learned about Chad is it seems like it gets built up a little bit," Mattingly said. "Chad really wants to be perfect. We just need him to slow it down. That is one of the areas he needs to improve is when he gets into trouble, just try to slow it down a little bit. After the walk, he gave up those two hits on 0-2 counts. I know he wants to get quick outs there, but when the count is in your favor, you have to make better pitch selections right there."
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Billingsley's tendency to try to make up for his mistakes instead of simply letting them go may never go away. But what is clear is that the Dodgers (51-60) -- who now are tied with the Colorado Rockies, 10 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants -- will gladly take what Billingsley is giving them, even if it isn't always polished. They will take the double-digit wins, the respectable ERAs, the reliable presence in the rotation of a guy who has been on the disabled list just once in his career, that for all of 17 days. The Dodgers proved that to Billingsley this spring by giving him a three-year, $35 million contract extension that doesn't even kick in until next year.
If you have followed my coverage of the Dodgers over the years, you probably know that I sometimes have been critical of this pitcher, perhaps overly so. He was a first-round draft pick in 2003, and in the 2½ seasons between my coming onto the beat in 2004 and Billingsley making his big league debut in 2006, I was told ad nauseum, by almost everyone in the organization, how great this kid was going to be.
Well, Billingsley (10-9) hasn't been great. But perhaps the mistake is expecting him to be. Because the fact is, he is pretty good. Good enough to have been an All-Star two years ago. Good enough to have gotten the ball for the second game of the season this year, which is like being named opening-day starter among all the guys not named Kershaw.
Is Billingsley as good as Kershaw? No, and he probably never will be. If the Dodgers had hung a six-run third inning on Diamondbacks rookie Josh Collmenter (6-7) with Kershaw on the mound, it would have been game over at that point. But when they did it with Billingsley pitching, you were pretty sure, but not totally so. Just like in his previous start, against these same Diamondbacks a week earlier, when he was absolutely cruising with a 4-1 lead through five and then, after giving up a leadoff single to Chris Young in the sixth, suddenly lost the strike zone and walked the next three hitters and four of the next six, and the Dodgers wound up losing 6-4.
The bullpen couldn't rescue Billingsley that night, and the game got away. This time, a quartet of relievers kept the Diamondbacks in check, and Guerra picked up his 10th save by retiring four of five batters, three of them on strikeouts.
No, Billingsley is no Kershaw. But on the other hand, the Dodgers don't expect him to be, and maybe the rest of us shouldn't expect him to be, either. Maybe the rest of us should just accept him for what he is, allow for the fact he is going to drive us crazy at times, and be grateful for what he does provide.
"You really don't find a lot of arms like that out there," Mattingly said.
Which means the Dodgers are lucky to have Billingsley. And thanks to that contract extension, to have him for the foreseeable future.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com