07/26/08 2:27 AM ET
Billingsley turns in gem for Dodgers
Right-hander registers team's first quality start since break
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
He gave another indication Friday night. With the rotation staggering out of the All-Star break, Billingsley pitched like a stopper in the Dodgers' 3-2 win over the Nationals.
Juan Pierre was welcomed back from the disabled list with a single to lead off a three-run, sixth-inning rally that featured Nomar Garciaparra's two-run single and a key groundout RBI from James Loney. Jonathan Broxton went four up and four down for his third save, Matt Kemp made two difficult running catches and even Andruw Jones showed a glimpse of what manager Joe Torre has been talking about with an extra-base hit for the second consecutive game.
But ask Garciaparra about his clutch hit and all he wants to talk about is Billingsley.
"That was really his game," Garciaparra said of Billingsley. "He gave us the opportunity to have that inning."
Billingsley took a three-hitter into the eighth inning, but needed Broxton to strike out Jesus Flores with two on to extinguish Washington's rally after making 106 pitches. He became the Dodgers' first 10-game winner, scattering five hits and lowering his ERA to 3.26.
"This is pretty much what we expect when we send guys out," said Torre, who instead had watched his starters compile an ugly 8.77 ERA coming out of the All-Star break. "We were very fortunate on the trip. Our starting pitchers didn't pitch well and we won half the games. This sort of restated what we are and how we do things and I hope it's a good indication of the homestand."
It's a 10-game homestand and Torre has mentioned more than once that it can be a crucial one. He doesn't mention the part that the first six games are against the Nationals, who have the worst record in the league, and the Giants, followed by a four-game showdown with the D-backs.
Billingsley didn't say he felt a responsibility to put a stop to the rotation's struggles. He just did it.
"We struggled a bit and I just hoped to get us back on a roll," Billingsley said. "I was just hoping to go deep in the game, keep us in the game. Just keep the game close and allow us to have a chance."
Billingsley entered the game third in the league in strikeouts, but he shifted strategy for the Nationals.
"I wanted to get quick outs the first couple innings, keep my pitch count down and be able to get into the eighth inning," he said. "I wanted contact early in the count."
His eight-pitch first inning was proof it was working. He allowed the first two batters in the third inning -- former Dodger Paul Lo Duca and Felipe Lopez -- to single, but kept the damage to a minimum with a run scoring on Willie Harris' sacrifice fly.
He added 14 extra pitches onto his work night by flubbing a fifth-inning comebacker by pitcher John Lannan, which required a bases-loaded strikeout of Cristian Guzman. He had one inning cut off with a double-play grounder, as second baseman Jeff Kent made a difficult pivot and throw. And he got two difficult catches from Kemp, one of them made even tougher when Jones cut in front of him.
Then Broxton bailed him out of the eighth, striking out Flores with two on and the lead cut to one run. In the ninth, Broxton twice hit 100 mph on the Dodger Stadium radar gun.
Offensively, it all happened for the Dodgers in the sixth. Pierre led off with a single, was singled to second by Kemp and Russell Martin was hit by a pitch to load the bases. After Kent lined out to shortstop, Garciaparra lifted a line drive over shortstop for two runs, sending to Martin to third.
In the kind of small ball the Dodgers haven't done well this year, Loney tapped out to second base, but it was good enough to score Martin with what proved to be the decisive run.
"Everybody had good at-bats that inning," said Garciaparra, still clutch after all these years, batting .421 with runners in scoring position this year and .374 as a Dodger. "That's what you need. Everybody picking each other up. Nobody had a bad at-bat."
OK, the inning ended with Jones striking out. But the previous inning, he launched a double high off the fence in left-center, his second in as many games. Some of his teammates are openly discussing how successful they might be if Jones can even come close to what he once was.
"I think he's not far away from just exploding," Martin said. "We've never really seen the big boy get hot. But he's getting good swings. He looks comfortable. He's a big piece of the puzzle. If he gets going, that will rub off on everybody. He's the type of guy who can carry a team. It's coming, so be ready."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.