LOS ANGELES -- It's not unusual for Dodgers backup catcher A.J. Ellis to be in the bullpen in the late innings of a game. But he's usually catching pitches, not throwing them.The sight of Ellis warming up on the bullpen mound for the ninth inning on Saturday night is all you need to know about the uncharacteristic meltdown of the Dodgers' middle relievers in a 9-3 loss to the Braves. When a win would have given the Dodgers sole possession of first place in the National League West, instead they saw a two-run lead wiped out when the Braves erupted for seven runs in the seventh inning to snap Chad Billingsley's four-game winning streak. Billingsley brought a shutout and a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning, but the first three batters he faced singled, he left clinging to a one-run lead, and soon was in line for the loss. "The first pitch to [Yunel] Escobar, a fastball and he jumped on it," said Billingsley. "[Nate] McLouth fought it off and got it over the infield. [Pinch-hitter Brooks] Conrad stayed up the middle. My stuff felt good, I had good command, just out there pitching. I'm not happy about the seventh, but what can you do?" With Hong-Chih Kuo unavailable after pitching on Friday night and Jeff Weaver nursing a cut finger, Billingsley was replaced by Ramon Troncoso, who allowed a two-run single to Omar Infante and a two-run double to Brian McCann. Ronald Belisario replaced Troncoso and allowed a two-run homer to Troy Glaus. "Their bullpen's one of the best in the game, so it's not like Billingsley's out and everybody's excited to face these guys throwing 96-mile-per-hour sinkers," said McCann. "We were able to put some good ABs together and have the big inning." Charlie Haeger was charged with two runs in his first appearance back from the disabled list, although they wouldn't have scored if a routine fly ball hadn't fallen between outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in the top of the eighth. "I assume they didn't communicate," said manager Joe Torre. "It looked like both could have caught it. Each one looked like the other could have caught it." Had the Dodgers put one runner on base in the bottom of the eighth to bring up Haeger's spot, Torre said he would have pinch-hit for Haeger and, if the Dodgers hadn't scored, he would have used Ellis instead of burning another reliever in a blowout. Although a catcher by trade, Ellis had pitched in five games at Double-A in 2006 and '07, compiling a 4.50 ERA over eight innings and even getting a win in a game when he drove in the tying run. "That would have been great -- pitching one game and catching the next," said Torre, who is considering starting Ellis on Sunday and resting regular catcher Russell Martin. "I thought it was going to happen," said Ellis. "It was definitely an adrenaline rush when the call came, you know?" Not so much for Torre, who saw a quality start by Billingsley wasted by a bullpen that had the best ERA in baseball (2.28) since May 9 and had not allowed an earned run over its last 22 1/3 innings. "You like to think good things will happen every time you pick up the phone," Torre said. "Unfortunately, the roof caved in tonight." The loss suffered by Billingsley (6-3) was his first since May 5. "That I left him out there as long as I did shows how comfortable I am watching him pitch," Torre said of Billingsley. The Dodgers, for the first three innings, appeared ready for an offensive breakout. After putting three runners on base without a run in the first inning, Blake DeWitt (who came into the game 1-for-18) singled with two outs in the second inning and scored when Billingsley doubled off the center-field fence. The Dodgers added a run in the third off Tommy Hanson with Kemp's triple to center and a sacrifice fly by Ethier, but didn't score again until the bottom of the ninth, when DeWitt's leadoff double was cashed in by Rafael Furcal's infield single, his third hit of the game.
Ethier tweaked his healing broken finger on a diving attempt to catch a foul ball, but stayed in the game and Torre said he was OK. Ethier continues to play with the finger in a splint.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.