PHOENIX -- On the long road back to respectability, the Los Angeles Dodgers haven't even reached the first rest stop. They still have a losing record, they are still closer to the division basement than the penthouse, and there is still that nasty divorce business that continues to cast a pall over everything.
But for perhaps the first time since the first week of the season, there are faint signs of life from these Dodgers, the latest being a 7-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks before 19,863 on Monday night at Chase Field.
Signs like a strong start from Chad Billingsley, another indication that this patchwork starting rotation might be beginning to solidify. Signs like another big game for Andre Ethier, who entered the evening leading the National League in all three Triple Crown categories and who is now hitting .351 for his career against the Diamondbacks after going 3-for-5 with two doubles. Signs like a bullpen that finally appears to be finding its footing.
Signs like the fact the Dodgers are now 7-3 against the National League West.
It is far too early to declare them cured, of course. But at least there is some reason for optimism at a time when the Dodgers have won four of their past five.
Start with the rotation. Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw, who turned in his best performance of the year Sunday to beat Colorado's indomitable Ubaldo Jimenez, appear to be hitting their strides. Billingsley has now turned in four consecutive starts that were perfectly acceptable, even if none of them was spectacular.
And with manager Joe Torre's dual announcements before the game that rookie John Ely will start every fifth day for a while and veteran Ramon Ortiz will move from the bullpen to the rotation, the Dodgers actually have a set rotation now to get them through until Vicente Padilla comes off the disabled list sometime in June. This after weeks of basically filling the fourth and fifth spots on a case-by-case basis with a mishmash that included ineffective knuckleballer Charlie Haeger and, on one occasion, untested rookie Carlos Monasterios.
The bullpen still won't have defined roles until Torre is completely satisfied that struggling setup man George Sherrill has finally found his missing mechanics. Even though Sherrill turned in a perfect inning, striking out Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki, in his most recent appearance Saturday night against the Rockies, Torre still went with Hong-Chih Kuo in the eighth inning against the Diamondbacks, at a point when the Dodgers' lead was just 4-2.
Meanwhile, the lineup is almost back to full strength with Manny Ramirez having come off the DL on Saturday, and will be at full strength if Rafael Furcal comes off the DL on Friday as anticipated. Ethier is now 6-for-12 with three doubles in the three games since Ramirez has been back hitting behind him, and while Ethier has pretty much sizzled all season whether Ramirez was in the lineup or not, he hasn't hit .500 all season.
There are still a lot of ifs for the Dodgers (15-17), and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Matt Kemp, the guy who hit in the cleanup spot most of the time during Ramirez's absence, has driven in one run in his past 18 games. Garret Anderson, the guy the Dodgers signed to be their primary left-handed hitter off the bench, is hitting .122, including 3-for-19 as a pinch hitter. And the Dodgers are still mired in a third-place tie with Colorado, 4½ games behind division-leading San Diego.
But on that aforementioned road back to respectability, well, at least the Dodgers aren't stuck in traffic anymore.
Diamondbacks starter Rodrigo Lopez, who entered this game averaging just 1.7 walks per nine innings, issued one of his five walks against the Dodgers to Russell Martin leading off the fifth inning. Matt Kemp followed with a one-hop, line single to right, and Martin never broke stride around second, sliding into third just ahead of the throw from Justin Upton. Kemp then moved into second on the throw, barely beating the relay from third baseman Mark Reynolds. Andre Ethier then hit Lopez's first pitch off the base of the wall in right field to score both runners, giving the Dodgers a 4-1 lead in what had been a tight, tense game to that point.
By the numbers
21 -- consecutive starts in which Chad Billingsley has failed to pitch beyond the sixth inning since he went eight innings at San Diego on July 5. This time, manager Joe Torre lifted Billingsley with one out in the sixth at a point when he had thrown just 90 pitches, but Billingsley had walked Adam LaRoche on five pitches to start the inning and then gave up a one-out double to Stephen Drew that knocked him out of the game.
Billingsley still got the win, improving to 3-2 and shaving his ERA to 4.82.
Quote of the day
"I came in and worked out Friday, but then they said they were optioning me down. I couldn't be surprised. Obviously [Jeff] Weaver was coming off the disabled list, so somebody had to go. They told me I had 72 hours to get to Albuquerque. I was just kind of biding my time and took a couple of days. I had so much stuff to get to and from Los Angeles, so I was trying to get all that together. By the time I got it together, they said I was coming back up.'' -- Dodgers rookie right-hander John Ely, describing what took place between his second big league start against Milwaukee on Thursday night and his third one, which is set for Tuesday night at Arizona.
Ely (0-1, 4.26) will make his third start of the season for the Dodgers, just five days after turning in an outstanding effort against Milwaukee in which he allowed just a run on four hits with seven strikeouts and no walks over 6 2/3 innings. Right-hander Dan Haren (4-1, 4.04), a three-time All-Star and the unquestioned ace of an Arizona rotation that is still without former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, will take the mound for the Diamondbacks.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.