Chad Billingsley has been as reliable this month as he was unpredictable at the start of the season, the latest stage of his resurgence consisting of seven scoreless innings in the Dodgers' 4-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.
Billingsley won for the fourth time in his last five starts, consuming innings and putting up zeros for a team that has failed to get any length out of its other starters and has seen its offense stalled by the absence of Rafael Furcal.
"I always expect him to go deep into games," catcher Russell Martin said. "That's the type of capability he has. He's one of the best in the league, in my eyes."
Manager Joe Torre said he didn't want to burden Billingsley (4-5) by calling him the ace of a staff that has recently received lackluster outings from Brad Penny and Derek Lowe, noting that the 23-year-old right-hander already puts enough pressure on himself. But if Billingsley, who dropped decisions in his first four starts, has noticed a change in himself in recent weeks, it's that he has been calmer.
Such was the case in the sixth inning, he said, when Ken Griffey Jr. came to the plate with one out and a man on third base. He didn't go after Griffey, walking him on five pitches, then forcing Brandon Phillips into an inning-ending double play.
"He's not rushing anything," Martin said. "The confidence is building up."
But Billingsley, who struck out seven and held the Reds to four hits over seven innings, answered with a definitive "No" when asked if his confidence was at the highest it has been in the majors.
"My stuff now is better than it was last year," he said, "but last year, that second half, I'd go out there knowing I could keep the team in the game."
But his teammates are feeling that that's the case today, and as Matt Kemp said, "We didn't think we needed so many runs today because he was in a zone."
Particularly in the first four innings, when he struck out six batters. Over the last 16 games, Dodgers starters have picked up only three wins. All three were by Billingsley.
The two runs the Dodgers scored in the first six innings came with some help from the Reds, who made two throwing errors in the series opener Monday night, including one that contributed to a walk-off run.
With no out and runners at the corners in the second inning, Kemp hit a chopper to third base. Edwin Encarnacion threw the ball home to prevent Jeff Kent from scoring, only to have catcher David Ross miss the ball. Kent scored, James Loney moved to third base and Kemp advanced to second base.
Shortstop Paul Janish, who made a crucial ninth-inning error the previous night, had a chopper from Blake DeWitt hit him in the chest, allowing the Dodgers to load the bases. Chin-lung Hu followed by hitting a grounder to first baseman Joey Votto, but Votto failed to step on first base before throwing out Loney at home.
Billingsley singled to right field on the next at-bat to drive in Kemp and put the Dodgers ahead, 2-0.
Billingsley left when Delwyn Young pinch-hit for him in the seventh inning, moving Hu to second base with a sacrifice bunt.
Hu scored on a single by Juan Pierre to extend the lead to 3-0, with Pierre later stealing his 18th base, advancing to third base on an infield hit by Andre Ethier and scoring on a fielder's choice.