Ethier was a late scratch from the starting lineup with a sour stomach, the third Dodgers player stricken in the past week, but he recovered enough to make the difference in a 2-0 win over the first-place Padres.
"I just said, 'Good job, dude,' but I'm not going near him -- that dude is sick," said outfielder Matt Kemp. "He's a clutch hitter. He came through when we needed him today. That's what he does, man."
Ethier and whatever contagion he had were sent back to the team hotel before reporters arrived in the clubhouse.
"He tried to play," said manager Joe Torre. "He was in and out of this thing. I explained to him, with us shorthanded [13 pitchers, four bench players], I didn't want him starting and having to come out in the fifth inning. We're really hamstrung. I'd rather save him for a spot, and it couldn't be a more perfect spot. It worked great."
Ethier was batting in the seventh inning for Chad Billingsley (9-5), who followed up last week's complete-game shutout against the Mets with six more scoreless innings on three hits, outdueling former teammate Jon Garland. The Dodgers have won five of their past six (four of them shutouts) with their starters allowing one earned run in 43 innings.
"Guys feed off each other," said Billingsley, 10-4 lifetime against San Diego. "Hitting's contagious. Pitching's contagious. It's kind of fun."
Torre went with his new late-inning formula, using lefty Hong-Chih Kuo for two overpowering innings (five consecutive strikeouts), so Jonathan Broxton, who had the stomach bug a week ago, was needed for only a three-out save (his 20th) as Torre stayed away from rookie Kenley Jansen.
The game was the first in a crucial 10-game stretch with seven against the Padres, who were something of a novelty atop the division when the Dodgers swept a three-game series at PETCO Park in May but have demonstrated unexpected staying power. The Dodgers, who Torre said have "underachieved" so far, are 5-1 against San Diego and 25-8 against the National League West.
The winning rally started with two outs in the seventh. Blake DeWitt singled and hustled to third on a single by Garret Anderson, who started for Ethier. Padres manager Bud Black decided to walk Russell Martin (4-for-7 against Garland) intentionally to load the bases. Black said it was worth bringing up the left-handed Ethier (3-for-7 against the right-handed Garland) to get Billingsley out of the game. Ethier -- hitting almost 100 points higher against righties than lefties -- rifled a 1-1 pitch up the middle.
"Billingsley is pitching great, and he and Jon are in a duel," said Black. "We forced them to make a move. Jon had to get one out. You take a calculated risk that Jon can get that out. I thought it was Jon's game. He was throwing the ball really well."
Said Torre: "I'm sure with Garland out there, he determines his own fate. I can understand that. Probably why that didn't surprise me."
Both starters had to escape hairy jams to keep the game scoreless that long. With no outs in the fourth inning, Adrian Gonzalez defeated the defensive shift with a single to left, Chase Headley lined a single past Billingsley and Yorvit Torrealba loaded the bases with a bouncer back to the box that Billingsley was only able to deflect.
However, Gonzalez was tagged out at the plate when Martin took DeWitt's high throw on Will Venable's fielder's choice. Tony Gwynn Jr. popped out and Everth Cabrera took a called third strike, as he did to end the second inning with runners on first and second.
The Dodgers were equally incapable of scoring in the sixth after Martin led off with a single and Billingsley was safe when Gonzalez fumbled his sacrifice bunt for an error. They couldn't advance as Rafael Furcal lined out and Garland struck out Xavier Paul and Kemp.
San Diego had a chance off Kuo in the seventh after Casey Blake's two-out error put runners on the corners, but Kuo caught Chris Denorfia looking at strike three. Kuo has a scoreless innings streak of 14 2/3, has allowed one earned run over his past 34 innings, hasn't allowed a hit to the 35 left-handed hitters he has faced and has an ERA of 0.79.
"Just stupid stats he's throwing up there right now," Billingsley said. "It's great for him. He's come a long way with a lot of arm problems. He's such a huge part of the staff and team."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.