LOS ANGELES -- Skeptics will doubt the quality of the opposition, but with a 4-1 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night the first-place Dodgers are off to their best start (5-1) since 1999.
Juan Rivera and Matt Kemp had three hits apiece and Chad Billingsley followed up 8 1/3 scoreless innings in San Diego with six innings for his second win, allowing only a Clint Barmes home run to left on the first pitch of the third inning.
"We're able to get out of the gate, get wins and build our confidence," said manager Don Mattingly. "It's good for our frame of mind, knowing we're not 1-5 and already three or four back and we've got to start chasing."
After a rocky Spring Training, Billingsley has suddenly found his All-Star form.
"Honey [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] made it real simple in the bullpen warming up in San Diego," said catcher A.J. Ellis. "He gave Chad one simple thought, and it took off from there.
"He told him to just drive with his lower half through the target and forget everything else. It's up to Chad to repeat the mechanics, and he did tonight. His fastball command was exactly like San Diego -- both sides, elevate when needed, mix in the off-speeds. I saw pretty much the same pitcher. It was great."
Offensively, if the Dodgers weren't great, they were efficient. They knocked out a dozen hits, Rivera drove in two runs and Andre Ethier delivered the go-ahead run with an RBI single that signaled the end of the night for Pirates' starter Erik Bedard. Ethier, who slugged a game-winning home run on Tuesday, has a team-high 10 RBIs.
"Having 'Dre healthy, that's a huge bat in the order," said Mattingly. "Dre gives us a force. Juan has always been an RBI guy ever since he was a kid. He's not flashy like some guys, but he gets big hits. We've got a good combination of guys. We have to just get on around them."
Mattingly went with his right-handed lineup, which meant benching James Loney, who came on as a pinch-hitter for Billingsley in the sixth inning and added two more futile at-bats for a season-opening 0-for-16.
But Loney's slump has been negated by the impressive numbers in the middle of the order -- Kemp is batting .400, Rivera .364 and Ethier .348. Rivera moved from left field to first base and Jerry Hairston had a single starting in left field.
"We've won our first two series," said Kemp. "We've done all the little things it takes to win. With our offense, we get one on, move him over and drive him in. If I don't drive him in, 'Dre does. If not 'Dre, then Juan does. 'Dre got a big hit off a lefty. He's coming through for us."
Although Billingsley spotted the Pirates the first run, the Dodgers answered with a two-out rally in the bottom of the third to tie it. Mark Ellis walked, Kemp defeated the defensive shift and reached on an infield single just to the left of second base, and Rivera singled to right, scoring Ellis.
Defense bailed Billingsley out of a sixth-inning jam after one-out singles by Nate McLouth and Andrew McCutchen. When Neil Walker lined to shortstop Dee Gordon, he flipped to Ellis, who beat McLouth back to second base for a double play.
"That was the game right there," said Walker. "Two feet either way, a run's in, we've got the lead, and still men on first and second with one out."
Kemp started the Dodgers' sixth-inning rally with a single, Rivera followed with an infield single and Ethier broke the tie with his single to left, giving him RBIs in five consecutive games.
"I was just letting the ball get deep [into the hitting zone] and use my hands," Ethier said. "He's going to finesse you. The ball gets big, and you want to get out there and jump at it, and you have to be patient."
The Dodgers added runs in the seventh on a leadoff double by Dee Gordon, a wild pitch by Evan Meek and RBI singles by Rivera and pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn.
The back of the Dodgers bullpen performed as scripted with three scoreless innings. Matt Guerrier pitched the seventh, Kenley Jansen struck out the side in the eighth and Javy Guerra locked down his fourth save of the year with a 1-2-3 ninth.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.