LOS ANGELES -- Chad Billingsley, to his everlasting credit, has apparently heard the critics, right up to and including Dodgers manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who had that well-documented, closed-door meeting with him in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. He has been more aggressive, thrown more strikes, walked fewer hitters, thrown fewer pitches and, as a result, gone deeper in games, pitching six innings in each of his past three starts after failing to get that far in any of the three before that.
Apparently, though, the Milwaukee Brewers had the new, improved Billingsley scouted quite well. On their way to pummeling the Dodgers for a second consecutive evening, this time 11-3 before 35,659 on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, the Brewers hammered Billingsley in the first inning, their first four batters all singling on a total of eight pitches.
By the time Billingsley had thrown 20 pitches to the first eight batters, the Brewers already had four runs -- all they would need on this night.
From there, Billingsley settled in and, in the words of Torre, "he dominated, basically." He gave up only two hits the rest of the way, one of them a liner by Prince Fielder that hit off the back of Billingsley's right knee.
So what was the difference?
"That first inning, they came out aggressive and they swung early in the count," Billingsley said. "I changed my game plan the next five innings and went with a little bit more off-speed stuff and mixed my pitches a little bit more."
And therein lies the issue Billingsley is faced with these days as he gallantly tries to morph from a high-pitch-count guy with a tentative demeanor into a strike-zone-pounding, innings-eating bulldog on the mound. The Brewers clearly knew before the game they were getting the latter version of Billingsley, and they were ready for him.
It was almost as if they knew what he was going to throw, although it doesn't appear they did. Honeycutt said he went to the clubhouse to watch video after the first inning to see if Billingsley might have been tipping his pitches.
"But then I saw where those pitches were," Honeycutt said.
Mostly, they were over the middle of the plate.
The Dodgers' latest humiliation notwithstanding, Billingsley has a 3.50 ERA over his past three starts, compared to a 7.07 in his first three. That is a clear sign progress is being made and Billingsley is beginning to pitch the way he did the first half of last season, when he was 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA and earned a spot on the National League All-Star team.
More important, there is a sense Billingsley, who famously struggles with his confidence at times, understands he is moving forward.
"I think he feels good about himself," Honeycutt said. "I like his arm slot, and I think overall he is back into his rhythm and throwing the ball like he has when we have seen him be really good. I want him to continue with that approach.
"You can't let one bad inning affect how your mindset is."
Although it didn't have much of an impact on the outcome -- the Brewers led 8-3 at the time -- there was a play in the top of the eighth inning that seemed to epitomize the Dodgers' collective ineptitude through the season's first five weeks. With runners on first and third, Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee lined a single to right field off Ramon Troncoso. Craig Counsell scored easily from third, but Carlos Gomez rounded second, got about one-third of the way toward third and slipped. By that time, Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake had received the throw from right field and appeared to have Gomez dead in a rundown. Blake threw to second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who then ran about three steps toward third and fired back to Blake. But when Gomez then turned and headed back to second, the bag was left uncovered, and Blake wasn't fast enough to run down Gomez, who slid in safely.
In the first two games of the series with the Brewers, six different Dodgers relievers have made one appearance each. All six have given up at least one run. Going back to Sunday, when an ineffective George Sherrill couldn't close out a win over Pittsburgh despite having a six-run lead in the ninth, the Dodgers' bullpen has given up 13 runs over 11 2/3 innings in the past three games, good for a 10.03 ERA. Before Sunday, the bullpen had pitched 10 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings over the previous three games.
Oh, and by the way, before coming to town and scoring 11 runs in each of the first two games of this series, the Brewers had been shut out three times in a four-game series at San Diego and scored two runs in the one game in which they weren't shut out.
By the numbers
61 -- consecutive innings in which the Dodgers didn't commit an error, a streak that ended when Blake made a bad throw on a ground ball by Rickie Weeks leading off the seventh. The Dodgers had what statistically was the National League's worst defense just a week ago, but their errorless streak, which spanned six full games and parts of two others, lifted them out of that unenviable position. Blake committed another error in the ninth inning, booting a ground ball by Gomez.
Quote of the Day
"Because we're down to the H's, I guess." -- Torre, explaining why he chose knuckleballer Charlie Haeger to fill a vacancy in the team's patchwork starting rotation for Saturday night's game against Colorado.
Rookie right-hander John Ely (0-1, 7.50) will make his second big league start for the Dodgers after an unsuccessful debut on April 28 at New York in which he gave up five runs in six innings, a line that was made worse by his own mental error on a defensive play that opened the door for a four-run second inning by the Mets. No matter how he pitches against the Brewers, Ely probably will be optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque after the game to clear a roster spot for Jeff Weaver, who is coming off the disabled list.
Right-hander Dave Bush (1-2, 4.60) will start for the Brewers. He is having a better season than his numbers would indicate, and his inflated ERA is mostly the result of one bad outing in which he gave up nine runs (seven earned) in 3 2/3 innings on April 25 against Chicago.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.