ATLANTA -- It was a series swing game against a contender at the end of a long and hot August trip, the kind of test that steels a team for October, and Chad Billingsley stepped up again Sunday.
Continuing his turnaround from a shaky first half, Billingsley threw seven scoreless innings and extended his win streak to a career-high six in a 5-0 win over the Braves to conclude a 7-3 Eastern trip for the Dodgers, who reclaimed a half-game lead over the Giants in the National League West.
"The Dodgers are playing well -- kudos to their GM for making the moves that they did at the Trade Deadline," said Braves icon Chipper Jones. "They're a lot better club than we faced earlier in the season."
Billingsley is one of the reasons. And for doubters who still view Billingsley through the prism of his playoff bust against the Phillies in 2008, one of those new teammates referred to by Jones said the perception is wrong.
"Maybe that one playoff situation still follows him, that people think he should have retaliated and didn't [after Philly's Brett Myers knocked down Russell Martin and threw behind Manny Ramirez], but to me, Chad has always wanted the ball and he battles you," said Shane Victorino, a Dodgers tormentor then and their left fielder now.
"From what I've seen in these four starts, this guy is on a roll and he's got confidence. One situation back then shouldn't follow a guy, but sometimes it does. You get labeled. But he's been very good to me. I'd hand him the ball come playoff time. He's been fun to watch. He's been dominant."
Billingsley, who allowed three hits, is unbeaten since skipping a start with a sore elbow after the All-Star break. He's also unbeaten since growing a beard, which he has no immediate plans to shave.
"I'll keep rolling with it," he said.
He is the first Dodgers pitcher to win six straight starts since Kevin Brown won seven in 2003. His ERA in the last six starts is 1.30 and for the year 3.44, which if the season ended now would be his lowest since 2008 (3.14). It was 4.30 before the win streak started.
"I'm a completely different pitcher than '08," Billingsley said. "I was still throwing back then. I was still learning. I am still learning."
At 10-9 he joined Philadelphia's Cole Hamels as the only National League starters with double-digit wins each of the last six seasons.
Billingsley never had more than one run to work with, a fifth-inning solo homer from Luis Cruz, who left in the ninth inning with a left hamstring cramp. The other four runs scored after Billingsley was removed by interim manager Trey Hillman, who went 2-0 during Don Mattingly's suspension. Mattingly returns Monday night for the opener of the Dodgers' showdown series at home with the Giants.
"He's a real good lesson for all of us," Hillman said of Billingsley. "At this level, if you're not clicking on all cylinders as Chad wasn't with the elbow irritation, he tried to tough it out, but everybody can see since that obviously there was something to that."
All four of the insurance runs were driven in by Mark Ellis, the first on a fly ball lost in the sun by right fielder Jason Heyward in the eighth inning, three more on a bases-loaded double inside third in the ninth inning. The eighth-inning run was set up by pinch-hitter Juan Uribe's walk, followed by Victorino's perfect hit-and-run single in a bunt situation.
"I got the RBIs in my worst two at-bats, and nothing in my best at-bats," Ellis said. "But it was nice to get those extra runs."
A.J. Ellis added three hits, including a double on a fly ball Heyward also lost in the sun.
"This was a challenging trip, the last seven games against two strong, contending clubs," A.J. Ellis said. "It's good for us to jell as a team and see what the lineup can do. Atlanta beat us at our place and it was good to get a couple here to even things up."
The top and bottom of the Dodgers' lineup carried the offense, because the middle of the lineup -- Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez -- went a combined 0-for-13. Kemp went 0-for-12 in the series.
"You're going into a series like this one here, and the guy you're looking for is Kemp," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I don't think Kemp got a hit the whole series, but you've got to face eight guys. Cruz took advantage of hitting back there in the seventh or eighth hole and cherry picked us. Really, really took advantage of us."
Cruz, who had the back end of Saturday night's back-to-back-to-back homers, went 2-for-4 in the game, 6-for-11 in the series and 13-for-29 (.448) on the trip.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.