Three starts into this season, Billingsley had a 7.07 ERA, but lately he's been duplicating last year's All-Star first half, his ERA down to 3.66. He's won his past three starts, allowing only three runs, and the one Friday night was undeserved.
Manny Ramirez returned to the lineup after missing two games with a sprained toe, and the first ball hit was Austin Jackson's catchable fly to left field that Ramirez couldn't get under and it fell for a double. After a groundout and a Magglio Ordonez sacrifice fly, Billingsley trailed, 1-0.
But rather than unravel, as has happened in the past, Billingsley just pitched better. He retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced and hung an 0-for-4 on Tigers MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera, who is 0-for-13 lifetime against him.
"He didn't get frustrated that first at-bat of the game," said catcher A.J. Ellis, who had a productive game himself filling in for Russell Martin with an RBI bloop single and three hard-hit outs.
"He really hung in there and did damage control. He was frustrated. It was a good at-bat, but he realized he had the big boys coming up and had to limit the damage."
Ramirez caused more trouble in the fourth inning when he misjudged Brandon Inge's drive to left-center that fell untouched on the warning track. But after pitching carefully to walk Alex Avila, Billingsley got Danny Worth to bounce into a forceout and end the inning.
"The one ball [Inge's] was catchable and I couldn't see the other one," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "He's still nursing it. He said he feels OK. He didn't have any restrictions, but it looked like he may be a little ginger on it."
Billingsley has talked recently about turning his game around after a late-season slump by de-emphasizing his cutter, but he went back to it effectively in this game because, "the game called for it," Ellis said.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said the goal hasn't been for Billingsley to eliminate the cutter as much as the havoc it was wreaking on his delivery for the fastball and curveball.
"At the end of last year it was becoming the overriding pitch," said Honeycutt. "It's still fine to throw it, but throw less of them. Last year it became the pitch he relied on in any jam and he's got too many other weapons to rely on that pitch. And the arm slot for the cutter is not conducive to the other pitches. While he's trying to perfect that pitch, he's changing the delivery to make other pitches and it caused a lot of negative things for me."
Now Billingsley is creating positive things for the Dodgers. His reversal has coincided directly with the team's surge, which wiped out a six-game deficit in less than two weeks.
"I'm just being aggressive with my fastball," said Billingsley. "I keep thinking aggressive and just pound the strike zone."
The Dodgers tied the score with a two-out rally in the fourth inning. Matt Kemp -- who later made a tumbling circus catch in center to rob Ramon Santiago -- singled and took second on Willis' wild pitch. Willis walked Casey Blake and Johnson fouled off three 3-2 pitches before walking to load the bases, and Willis then hit Nick Green on the right foot to bring in the tying run.
Willis let the Dodgers take the lead in the fifth with a walk to Jamey Carroll, a double by Ronnie Belliard and a wild pitch. Ramirez then pulled a one-hop shot off the ankle of third baseman Inge as Belliard scored. The Dodgers added a run in the sixth on singles by Johnson, Green and Ellis.
"For me, hitting's always about timing and rhythm, when you're getting some more regular plate appearances it makes it a little easier on you," said Johnson, whose playing time has spiked with the injury to Andre Ethier. "That's one of the main reasons I've had a little bit more success now."
Torre loaded his lineup with right-handed hitters against Willis, who is now 1-6 lifetime against the Dodgers.