LOS ANGELES -- Chad Billingsley is challenging to cover. Challenging because he is a good guy, a classy guy, a fan- and media-friendly guy. The type of guy even a veteran, cynical beat reporter tends to root for because that reporter wants so badly to write that Billingsley had a good game, that he pitched well, maybe even that he dominated the way we all thought he would one day do with regularity all those years ago as he was climbing through the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system and we were all salivating at the thought of what it was going to be like when he got here.
Sadly, though, following the Dodgers' fourth consecutive loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday night, this time 6-2 before 26,773 at Dodger Stadium, I am once again at a loss for the right words to use. I want to be diplomatic. I want to be tactful. I want to be delicate. But I also want to be credible, and so, I say this:
This is the same thing we have been watching for six years now. It hasn't changed, and it probably isn't going to. If Billingsley were a No. 5 starter, that would probably be OK. But he isn't a No. 5 starter. He is a No. 2 starter, a former first-round draft pick, a guy with a three-year, $35 million contract that runs through 2014.
And he is average. Maybe even a little above average. He has, after all, reached double-digit wins in all five of his full seasons in the majors. He entered this season with a very respectable career ERA of 3.68. He was an All-Star just three years ago, at a point when it appeared he finally was blossoming into the reliable, consistent pitcher he always was supposed to be. Even now, he has a career won-lost record 72-56. That is a .563 winning percentage. Nolan Ryan's was .526.
Billingsley wasn't horrible against the Brewers. He almost never is, and certainly no more often than even the best starting pitchers, none of whom are immune to the occasional stinker of a start and all of whom are entitled to be forgiven for it when it happens. But in six May starts, Billingsley (2-4) went 0-3 with a 5.52 ERA, gave up 42 hits and 18 walks in 31 innings and averaged 18.7 pitches per inning.
"I had two starts, a few starts ago, where I didn't really have a feel and couldn't get into a good rhythm," Billingsley said. "But the past few starts, I have felt like I had a good rhythm and a good fastball. I just have to keep going, just have to keep grinding away."
No, Billingsley wasn't horrible against the Brewers. But he wasn't especially good, either, giving up four earned runs, all in the second and third, and six hits, striking out eight batters over six rather pedestrian innings. And on a night when the Dodgers' offense was dealing once again with the loss of Matt Kemp, hitting into double plays with alarming regularity and leaving runners on base galore, Billingsley, once again, wasn't good enough.
"He hung in there and kept battling, and he kind of kept us in the game," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It's not like it was bad or anything. But it wasn't dominating. He just hung in there enough."
And that, unfortunately has been the story of Billingsley since his heralded big league arrival back in 2006. He has always just hung in there enough. He has always been just good enough to stay in the rotation. But things may be changing. That rotation is different now. Ted Lilly has been better than anyone thought he would be, and Chris Capuano, one of two veterans the Dodgers signed to fill out the rotation, has been better than anyone thought he would be. And while the other of those veterans, Aaron Harang, has been a mixed bag, he has been as good as Billingsley and maybe better.
And then, there is this: Lilly is on the 15-day disabled list, but he isn't expected to be there long. The kid the Dodgers called up to replace him, Nathan Eovaldi, turned in seven dazzling innings against the Brewers on Tuesday night, losing only because of a lack of run support. When Lilly comes back, the Dodgers may have a decision to make as to whether to send Eovaldi back to the minors or to send someone -- Billingsley, perhaps -- to the bullpen to make room for Eovaldi to stay in the rotation.
Mattingly didn't bite when I raised that issue after the game.
"I don't have a crystal ball to look into," for when Lilly returns, he said.
But then I reminded Mattingly of something he said to a group of beat writers at the team's spring training complex in Arizona last Sept. 29, the day after the end of his first season as manager. He told us that day that Billingsley has always been, "kind of right here," holding his hand next to his head at eye level, and that Mattingly would like to see Billingsley "get to right here," holding his hand at about the top of his cap.
By all appearances, Billingsley is still at eye level.
"I can't sit here and say it has been a whole lot different," Mattingly finally admitted Thursday night. "But at this point, the only way we have of making this work, for me as a coach, a teacher and a manager and for our pitching coach, is to keep working. Just continue to get better and do whatever we possibly can to help Bills get better and be more consistent.
"I don't know any other way except to keep working."
Maybe one of these days, that work will pay off. Maybe one of these days, we will see Billingsley turn a corner and never look back.
It can't be ignored, though, that we have been saying that -- and yes, writing it -- for the better part of six years now.