Billingsley’s night short but sweet
From the view behind the catcher’s mask, Chad Billingsley looked like an All-Star again.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him in a while,” Russell Martin said.
Billingsley didn’t give up any runs and won for only the second time in nine starts, thanks to a big night by Matt Kemp, but the starting pitcher wasn’t smiling when he met with reporters in front of his locker in the aftermath of the Dodgers’ 9-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night at Turner Field.
He didn’t get to finish what he started, as a cramp in his right hamstring limited him to five innings.
But what a five innings they were.
Pitching in front of a national televised audience, Billingsley (11-6) gave up only two hits.
He walked only one.
He struck out nine, including two after trainer Stan Conte came out to the mound to check on him.
He led the Dodgers to a win that let them finish the trip with a 3-4 record -- not bad, considering they started it by losing the first three games, including one he pitched.
“I felt I had command of my fastball,” said Billingsley, who was 1-3 with a 6.46 earned-run average in his previous eight starts. “I felt like I haven’t had that in some time.”
Martin noticed the difference.
“His control, the way he kept the ball down and repeated his delivery, he was a lot better,” Martin said.
Martin said he noticed something else.
“I saw him grimace,” Martin said of the 1-2 pitch that Billingsley threw to Matt Diaz with one out in the fifth.
Martin went to the mound.
Billingsley said he started to cramp while warming up for that inning. He told Martin about what he was feeling.
“He started looking at the dugout,” Billingsley said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Out went Conte.
Billingsley finished the inning, striking out Diaz and Greg Norton.
A mammoth three-run home run by Kemp and a run-scoring single by Mark Loretta in the top of the fifth had put the Dodgers up by four runs. (Kemp drove in two more runs on an eighth-inning single to give him five runs batted in for the day, matching a career high.)
With 57 games left in the regular season, Manager Joe Torre wasn’t about to take any more chances.
“He wanted to stay in the game,” Torre said. “He was very strong-willed. I almost gave in. But I never would have forgiven myself if something happened.”
To remove Billingsley, Torre had to find someone to pinch-hit for him in the sixth. Because Casey Blake was out with a minor hand injury, the Dodgers had a short bench.
Torre said he first thought of using Jason Schmidt. He was reminded that he had Randy Wolf, who hit .267 in 2004, but Wolf wasn’t wearing spikes.
Schmidt got the call.
He singled up the middle for the first pinch hit of his career.
Schmidt later scored from second on a double by James Loney, who was three for six with two runs batted in.
Asked when he last had to run like that, a smiling Schmidt said, “Little League, probably.”
If this game marked a return to form for Billingsley, it had similar meaning for the team as a whole. The Dodgers’ run total was the club’s highest in 12 days.
Martin said dropping three games to St. Louis at the start of the trip opened the Dodgers’ eyes.
“It made us realize what type of team we’re going to have to beat in October,” Martin said. “Both of these teams were tough, but St. Louis was tough. They don’t give anything away, they pitch well, they play good defense. They’re in the back of our minds, I’m sure.”
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