Chad Billingsley might be the fulcrum of the Dodgers’ spring.
If he is healthy again and pitching as well as he did last August, the Dodgers would have three polished, hard-throwing starters able to dominate an entire series.
If something goes wrong and he’s forced to undergo season-ending surgery, things take on a different light. The Dodgers would be forced to hold onto at least one of the three spare veteran starters they have in camp. Suddenly, Josh Beckett could become the No. 3 starter, a somewhat scary proposition given his 4.65 ERA last year.
Billingsley, 28, today makes his first start since Aug. 24 of last season, facing the Chicago Cubs. He missed the final month after experiencing elbow pain due to a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Billingsley had gone 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in the seven starts before he went down.
It might have been safer for Billingsley’s career to get the Tommy John surgery out of the way as soon as he heard the news. He could have returned as quickly as the end of the 2013 season. Plenty of pitchers have bounced back after the surgery, most recently Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan, an All-Star last July.
Instead, Billingsley chose platelet-rich plasma therapy, in which doctors took a small vial of his blood, spun it around in a centrifuge to separate the plasma-rich stuff and injected it into his elbow. In theory, the therapy speeds healing, but there have been no large-scale studies to prove it.
Billingsley has told reporters he has felt no pain this spring in any of his bullpen sessions and, according to manager Don Mattingly, the trainers are no longer issuing reports on Billingsley’s health. It’s all very promising, but also still kind of hard to trust. Many pitchers avoid Tommy John surgery for as long as possible, but most succumb to it eventually.
One who didn’t is a former teammate of Billingsley’s, a guy who pitched last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks at age 42.
“I’m going to be like Takashi Saito,” Billingsley told the Orange County Register.
You don’t hear that often, but it's at least something for Dodgers fans to hope for.
*UPDATE: Billingsley had a rough spring debut, giving up four straight hits, including a home run, to start the game. Billingsley pitched a tidy, scoreless second inning. All told, he allowed two runs on five hits and struck out one while throwing 30 pitches.