There was no mistaking what happened to Chad Billingsley on Friday.
The road back to the form that made him an All-Star this summer took a violent and abrupt detour back to pitching purgatory at Great American Ball Park. The Dodgers weren't able to add to the momentum they built by taking the last two games of their three-game series in Colorado.
Billingsley said he has to forget about this start, but acknowledged that not thinking about games like this has become increasingly difficult.
"Are you asking if I think about it all the time?" Billingsley asked. "I mean, how can't you? How can't you?"
The unquestioned ace of the staff in the first half of the season, Billingsley (12-8) has won only three times in his last 13 starts, posting a 5.61 earned-run average in that span.
Beset by command problems Friday, he was charged with four runs and seven hits in five innings. He walked four and struck out only one.
Billingsley gave up a run in the second, two in the third and a solo home run to Jonny Gomes leading off the sixth.
Only a day removed from facing the second-place Rockies in a playoff-type atmosphere, the Dodgers' hitters looked as if they were unable to get themselves up for a game against an out-of-contention Reds team played in front of empty seats.
That doomed Billingsley for defeat, as the Dodgers' offense did nothing until a two-run ninth inning. Reds starter Homer Bailey (4-4), who was pounded for nine runs in 2 2/3 innings at Dodger Stadium on July 21, struck out seven batters over eight scoreless innings in the night of his life.
Making this an even more maddening stretch of games for Billingsley is that the decline of his performance has coincided with the shrinking of the Dodgers' lead in the West.
"It's definitely frustrating, not pitching well late in the season," Billingsley said. "I just haven't able to. . . . I don't know what it is. . . . It's just when I try to make a quality pitch right now, it goes over the plate."
The problem has become psychological, Billingsley acknowledged, as he said he has often found himself trying to do too much on the mound.
Manager Joe Torre said that Billingsley's words matched his own observations.
"You really can't pay a lot of attention to it, because the more you think about something like that, the worse it gets," Torre said. "I'm speaking from personal experience. This is a game that's all about muscle memory and you have to just trust when you let the ball go."
So what is a manager to do?
"Sometimes you try to take his mind off it," said Torre, who before the game asked the Ohio native about how many tickets he had to leave for family and friends.
Other times, Torre has tried to emphasize the positive aspects of Billingsley's outings. When Billingsley lost in St. Louis last month, Torre talked to him about the five shutout innings he pitched, not the six-run sixth inning.
Billingsley's body has presented an additional obstacle.
He threw five shutout innings in Atlanta on Aug. 2 but left because of a cramp in his right hamstring. Five days later at Dodger Stadium he held the Braves to one earned run in six innings, only to strain his left hamstring running the bases.
He had to miss a start.
He returned to make two decent starts, but then, well, this happened.
"I'm struggling right now," Billingsley said. "I just need to get back into the groove and find my rhythm again. Just keep trying to figure something out. That's all I can do."