Chad Billingsley struggles with lead

SAN FRANCISCO -- Chad Billingsley was cruising, sailing, breezing, whatever nautical euphemism you want to use for a pitcher who was basically having his way with the opposition. The Los Angeles Dodgers' right-hander was efficiently mowing down the San Francisco Giants, the team that won last year's World Series, and he was thoroughly outpitching Tim Lincecum, the guy who won the past two National League Cy Young Awards.

And then, in the top of the fourth inning of what would become a 5-4 loss to the Giants before 41,960 at AT&T Park, Billingsley's teammates did the worst thing they could have possibly done for him.

They gave him a lead.

Finally taking advantage of Lincecum's inability to get ahead in counts and his unusual ineffectiveness, the Dodgers got to him for three runs and four hits, plus a costly error by the Giants' rookie first baseman, Brandon Belt. And then, armed with that three-run cushion, Billingsley went back to the mound for the bottom of the fourth and promptly fell apart. The Giants got two of those runs back quickly, and by the fifth, they were ahead.

Sound familiar? It should.

There was no shortage of acquittals for Billingsley after the game, with manager Don Mattingly, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and Billingsley himself all saying that the Giants' rally hinged on their ability to hit good pitches that were located pretty much where Billingsley wanted them. But there is no getting around the fact that in his three starts this season, Billingsley has been staked to three leads and has promptly blown all three within two innings.

Well, actually, there was a fourth time, against these same Giants back on April 1 at Dodger Stadium. But that night, after the Dodgers retook the lead with a three-run sixth inning, Billingsley wasn't allowed to return to the mound. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that lead held up, resulting in Billingsley's only victory of the season.

"I stuck with my game plan, which was to try to get ahead of hitters," Billingsley said when asked if he had changed his approach in any way after the Dodgers hung those fourth-inning runs on Lincecum.

That might be true, but it is worth noting that while facing the minimum over the first three innings and limiting the Giants to one hit (erased by a caught stealing) -- all while the game was scoreless -- Billingsley threw a total of 38 pitches. After the Dodgers roughed up Lincecum in the top of the fourth, Billingsley threw 61 pitches over the next two innings, giving up four runs and six hits, two walks and a wild pitch, and then left the game.

If the notion that Billingsley can't pitch with a lead is the most obvious conclusion to draw here, it nevertheless was a conclusion that both Mattingly and Honeycutt flatly rejected.

"He made good pitches," Mattingly said. "If he wasn't making good pitches, and getting himself in trouble, it would be different. But he was making good pitches and they just hit the ball, so I'm not sure you can think of it like that. I thought he threw the ball OK."

Honeycutt concurred.

"Chad has always been a guy for me who has always been a battler," he said. "Usually, when things get tough, he mixes it up pretty good."

OK, fair enough. But if this doesn't tell us that Billingsley suddenly can't pitch with a lead, what does it tell us?

And what does it mean that he has begun the season -- his first season since being signed two days before the opener to a three-year, $35 million contract extension -- with a 7.71 ERA?

Honestly, it's tough to say at this point. But what is clear is that the second-place Dodgers (6-5), who fell two games behind the Colorado Rockies in the NL West, missed a golden opportunity against Lincecum, who rarely is going to be as off his game and as vulnerable as he was Tuesday night.

Billingsley's three blown leads this season are rather ironic given that it was a lack of run support that proved to be his biggest bugaboo last year, when he appeared to make huge strides as a pitcher and probably would have been far better than the 12-11 record he posted if the Dodgers had scored more than 15 runs in those 11 losses, five of which were shutouts.

Billingsley was saved from another defeat this time when Marcus Thames delivered a tying, pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning, momentarily tying the score and leaving it to someone else -- in this case reliever Blake Hawksworth (1-1) -- to take the loss. If Billingsley's habit of blowing leads is more about bad luck than bad pitching, then the Dodgers have nothing to worry about.

Their next chance to find out will come on Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals, when Billingsley makes his next start.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.