Consistency is Chad Billingsley's issue

LOS ANGELES -- It isn't often that a major league manager is asked before a game about that night's starting pitcher.

But just before his Los Angeles Dodgers took on the still-surging Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium -- a game L.A. would lose 5-4 before 31,404 when usually reliable closer Javy Guerra suddenly lost the strike zone in the 10th inning -- manager Don Mattingly was hit with a series of questions about Tuesday starter Chad Billingsley. This was a clear sign that, at the moment, things weren't going particularly well for Billingsley.

Mattingly didn't dodge those questions. Nor did he attempt to shoot down the premise.

"You're looking for some consistency," Mattingly said. "Any time a guy is struggling, you worry about his confidence. What we're seeing this year is what we have seen a lot. He'll have a good day where you maybe say there it is, then he'll take a step back, then he'll have a good game. It's really pretty good for the most part, but it's kind of [leveled off] for me.

"It's not that climb you like to see, where it just gets better and better and better."

We won't know for a while yet whether Billingsley's strong, 6 1/3-inning performance against the Diamondbacks was the start of that climb. But this much seems certain: you have to start somewhere, and coming on the heels of three not-so-good ones, this seems like as good a place as any.

The first three innings were rough, but the next three-plus were sterling as Billingsley retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, not allowing a hit after a sacrifice fly by Miguel Montero in the third inning cut the Dodgers' lead to 4-3. Billingsley would miss out on a victory when Hong-Chih Kuo, who relieved him with one out in the seventh, gave up a tying homer to Gerardo Parra. But the important thing, especially at this juncture of the season, was that Billingsley left feeling good about himself.

Which brings us to another point Mattingly made before the game.

"He needs to be able to separate one start from the other," Mattingly said. "It is easier said than done, but it's something where you have to be able to do that to be productive in this league. You have to be able to put the bad days behind you, and really, you have to be able to put the good days behind you the same way."

In other words, Billingsley has a tendency to let what could and should be momentary hiccups turn into the sort of struggles that can stretch over two or three starts. He threw 287 pitches in his previous three outings, during which he gave up 24 hits in 12 1/3 innings, walked eight batters and posted a 7.30 ERA, while the Dodgers somehow found a way to win all three.

Billingsley's pitch count was high again in this one, but that was mostly due to those first three innings. From the fourth on, we saw the dominating pitcher we know Billingsley can be, which makes it all the more maddening that we don't see that guy more often.

Those previous three starts lent themselves to all sorts of speculation, such as whether Billingsley was feeling OK physically. I went so far as to ask pitching coach Rick Honeycutt that question during last weekend's series in San Francisco, whereupon Honeycutt said if Billingsley was hurting, he wasn't admitting it. That appears to be a moot point now.

What Honeycutt did say was that Billingsley had lost command of his fastball -- the pitch that sets up the effectiveness of all his others -- and it probably was a mechanical issue having to do with his release point. Whatever it was, it wasn't much of a problem against the Diamondbacks.

Billingsley said after the game that he had corrected his mechanical issues during his most recent bullpen session Saturday.

"I had my fastball command tonight, and I was able to move it around," he said. "I just kind of got back to who I was. My timing had been off. I tried to get back to doing what I know how to do."

For his effort, Billingsley was left with nothing more than another no-decision, his fourth in a row. But for a guy who probably has only two starts remaining this season -- he could get a third in the Sept. 28 finale at Arizona if Mattingly uses next week's off day to skip Dana Eveland, but there really isn't a reason to do that with the Dodgers not in contention -- you can't help feeling it would do Billingsley a world of good to be able to go home for the winter knowing he finished strong and that everything was right.

Where he goes from there, well, who knows? What we do know is that Billingsley is capable of being a top-tier pitcher. We know this because he already has reached double-digit wins for the fifth year in a row. The Dodgers don't need him to be dramatically better than that in the future. But they do need him to be a little better. Or, more to the point, they need him to be as good as he can be, a little more often.

And then, maybe, Mattingly won't have to answer questions about him until after he pitches.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.