LOS ANGELES -- Given the way the afternoon started for Chad Billingsley, few could have predicted the way it would end for the Dodgers' starting pitcher.
It started ugly -- walk, hit batter, line-drive single, run-scoring single. It ended almost flawlessly, as Billingsley retired 21 of the final 22 batters he faced in tossing a two-hit gem.
Billingsley baffled the Nationals' hitters for seven innings on Sunday, and the Dodgers' bullpen retired six straight to seal a 3-1 win over Washington at Dodger Stadium.
"Everything felt good today," Billingsley said. "You don't get that feel often. I had to grind through that first inning. But after that, I knew that was all they were going to get. I knew I had pretty good stuff."
But his struggles in the 38-pitch first had more than a few Dodgers on edge, especially when Michael Morse's RBI single knocked home Washington's only run and kept the bases loaded before Billingsley had even recorded an out.
"I thought he might have been a little shaky," center fielder Matt Kemp said. "You never know. But he bounced back after that first inning and he was money after that."
"I told him to get out of it with one," said manager Don Mattingly. "I didn't really mean get a hit right away and then get the next three. But he really bounced back."
Third baseman Aaron Miles gave Billingsley all the credit for the win.
"You're thinking the worst," said Miles. "You're hoping for a double-play ball or get out of there maybe down, 2-0. But for him to just shut the door like that and cruise the rest of the way was big. That was all Bills. Bills won that game for us today."
In a season where Billingsley has shown flashes of brilliance but has been unable to string great starts together to establish momentum, Sunday's outing was one of his most dominant. He had Nationals hitters guessing all day, mixing plenty of curveballs and changeups into his 10 strikeouts.
And while Billingsley may have put the Dodgers in a hole early on, his first-inning Houdini act gave the offense a bit of a jolt.
"It felt as much like a 1-2-3, three-punchout inning as it did giving up one run," Miles said. "Looking at what we were looking at, that was huge. I felt pumped up after the inning, even though we gave up a run. You couldn't help but feel that way."
The Dodgers took the lead on Miles' unconventional two-run single in the first. With runners on first and second, Miles drove the ball to the right-center-field gap, easily plating Andre Ethier. Kemp, running hard from first at the crack of the bat, took advantage of a lazy throw into the infield and a low relay throw to the plate. He slid head-first, avoiding the catcher, into home plate.
"I wasn't paying attention to the throw," Kemp said. "I was paying attention to the third-base coach. I guess he made the right decision."
At best, it was a gutsy decision, Kemp having barely passed the third-base bag when second baseman Danny Espinosa received the throw from the outfield. But third-base coach Tim Wallach didn't hesitate, emphatically waving Kemp around for the Dodgers' second run.
With Billingsley finding his groove and the bullpen staying hot, that second run was all the Dodgers would need. Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra came on and tossed perfect innings in the eighth and ninth, respectively, as the Nationals couldn't muster a hit over the final eight frames.
"We should have [broken it open] in that first inning," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "We couldn't put the ball in play with nobody out, and that hurt us. And then he settled down and pitched an effective ballgame. We swung and missed a lot today."
Guerra earned saves in back-to-back games for the first time this season. Given that he started the season with Double-A Chattanooga, Guerra said he is trying to enjoy every moment of his immediate big league success.
Mattingly has yet to officially anoint Guerra the team's closer despite his seven saves, his role as the ninth-inning stopper, and even an entrance song that debuted on Sunday without Guerra's input -- Danzig's "Mother." Guerra said it didn't really matter.
"For now, I think you guys are the ones saying [I'm the closer]," Guerra told reporters. "I just kind of get up and toss whenever they ask."
Despite the back-to-back wins, however, Mattingly acknowledged the Dodgers' hole -- 13 1/2 games behind the Giants in the National League West. He added, right now, the team is "struggling for air and pretty much feels like we've got to win every day."
But when reminded it was his team's first series win since the All-Star break and its second in its last eight, Mattingly asked one favor from the slew of interviewers surrounding his desk.
"Let me enjoy one," he said.
AJ Cassavell is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.