CHICAGO -- Chad Billingsley and Esteban Loaiza have stepped up with clutch starts this week, but don't forget about Brad Penny.

He's been the ace all year, and just when the skeptics started to smell another second-half collapse, he stuck it to the Cubs on Tuesday night with seven strong innings in a 6-2 Dodgers win, their third straight. They trail in the division and the Wild Card by three games.

Penny also doubled and scored a run, clearly still bothered by a lower abdominal strain when he runs, making his 15 victories this year even more impressive. He came into the game with only one win in his last seven starts.

Penny credited his defense's five double plays on the night, as well as another productive performance by the offense, this time led by Matt Kemp's four hits.

But to limit the first-place Cubs to only one earned run, Penny had to resist the temptation to overthrow the way he tended to do when things started to unravel last year. And with the radar gun lighting up to 97 mph, Penny had his A-game stuff for the temptation to be there.

"The most impressive thing to me is that he's under control," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "Last year, he didn't have the confidence to use all his pitches, so he'd stick with the heat. This year, he's using the full variety of pitches, so hitters can't sit on that fastball. He's sticking with the game plan and throwing the pitches that get each guy out."

Penny did seem to flash back to last year in the first inning, when the Cubs started with a pair of hits and Penny overthrew his way to an additional pair of walks, but a Derrek Lee double-play grounder kept the Cubs off the scoreboard.

"Sometimes key at-bats are early. We lead off with two singles, and I've got to do a better job right there," said Lee. "You put pressure on [Penny] early, you can make it a rough night for him. But with the double play, he's feeling good again. He's too good of a pitcher. When he feels good, he's going to be good."

Penny is now 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA and still in the Cy Young Award hunt. He's thrown 185 innings, hasn't missed a start and has allowed only five home runs compared to 19 in 2006. Last year, after starting the All-Star Game, Penny went 6-7 with a 6.25 ERA. Since this year's All-Star Game, Penny is 5-3 with a 3.56 ERA.

"The key for Brad is the way he minimizes the damage, that's been the key to his success," said manager Grady Little. "He's doing more pitching, instead of grunting and heave-hoeing every pitch."


"The key for Brad is the way he minimizes the damage, that's been the key to his success. He's doing more pitching, instead of grunting and heave-hoeing every pitch."
-- Grady Little, on Brad Penny

That comes from maturity, a word the Dodgers are hoping soon applies to Kemp. He made another baserunning mistake when he was picked off while attempting to steal second base in the first inning. By the end of the night, though, he had four hits, including a triple, a stolen base, an RBI and run scored.

"He's an amazing player," said Little, Kemp's biggest booster. "He'll be a good one. He's learning from his mistakes."

Kemp said he also learned a lot playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He said that, more than any other single reason, explains why he's hitting .344 this year compared to .253 last year. It's why he has gone from the homer-or-strikeout free swinger of a year ago to a more disciplined hitter willing to cut down his two-strike swing and punch a single.

"If I'm a better hitter, it's because I went to the Dominican Republic and worked a lot on hitting sliders and breaking balls and getting confident doing it," said Kemp. "Now if I get behind in the count and I know that might be coming, I shorten my swing. Early in the count, I can be more aggressive."

In 154 at-bats last year, Kemp had seven home runs and 53 strikeouts. In 215 at-bats this year, Kemp has nine home runs and 48 strikeouts. His .535 slugging percentage is the highest on the club (except for Delwyn Young with 14 at-bats).

The Dodgers offense was so productive, it overcame its sloppiness on the bases. Five Dodgers were erased on the basepaths, including two thrown out at the plate by Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

"We try to stay aggressive, but we also need to use more common sense," said Little. "These things happen, but I've about seen enough. I'm ready to cry uncle."