'Change' of pace working wonders for Billingsley

'Change' of pace working wonders for Billingsley

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- In his first outing of the spring, Chad Billingsley threw a change into the Dodgers' impressive start-up starting pitching. He threw several of them, in fact.

"Since I've been in pro ball," said Billingsley, a June 2003 Draft pick, "I've always wanted to incorporate a changeup as a main pitch, a go-to pitch in certain situations. I really tried to use it in past years, but it came a long way in the second half of last season.

"So that's one thing I'm focusing on this spring, to start using that a little bit more. I threw a few today, and it worked pretty well."

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Billingsley's results Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark were pretty awesome, as he fanned three in three innings of three-hit shutout ball in the Dodgers' 2-1 loss.

On the first day of March, thus, he continued the proficiency of July and August. As the Dodgers faded from the National League West race, one bright spot down the stretch was Billingsley and his 3.00 ERA in 15 second-half starts.

Success in that spell with increasingly using the change-of-pace as a weapon left him enthused about featuring it more often and filling batters' minds with more possibilities.

"It's something I continue to work on. I've always thrown it, but now I want it to be that pitch. So the difference is using it a little bit more. It could be something that take me over the top," Billingsley said, "or just makes me a little bit better."

"Better" would take to a new level a young but veteran big leaguer whose 52 victories since 2007 are tied for the eighth-most among active NL starters.

"As he gets more comfortable with the change, it's the pitch that could put him together with Matt Cain," said Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, citing the righty ace of the World Series champion Giants. "The two have been similar, but the change is what Cain used last year to separate himself.

"But Chad's own change improved a lot in the second half. It'll just keep making his fastball better."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who habitually stands in the batter's box while his pitchers do their bullpen work, has gotten that up-close look at Billingsley's developing weapon.

"It's a good pitch for him. He can work it to both sides of the plate," Mattingly said. "He needs to get it away from right-handed batters, and close to lefties. Chad's work has been good. His [throwing on the] sides have been sharp."

Front-and-center wasn't too shabby, either.

"I'm very happy," Billingsley said. "I came out throwing good and got my pitches in, and it's something to keep building on."

As is the phenomenal early-spring showing of Dodgers starters. Left-hander Ted Lilly gets his first shot to add some bricks on Wednesday when he makes his first start, against the Royals.

Billingsley's mastery prolonged Dodgers starters' impressive early-spring run -- which is precisely what they have given up in five games and 12 innings, one run. And that, off Clayton Kershaw, was unearned. Even for a team assembled and meant to depend on its rotation, the flawlessness is eye-catching, especially in the hitters' Cactus League.

Two of the early starts were by "taxi squad" members John Ely and Tim Redding.

"We definitely have a lot of depth in the rotation," said Billingsley, his eyes widening. "Our five [main] guys have a lot of experience, and we can learn from each other, make each other better. Hopefully, everyone just stays healthy."

The "zero" in Billingsley's line was protected by catcher Rod Barajas' block of the plate as Carlos Santana tried to slide in with a first-inning run. Santana had been on first when Travis Hafner slapped an opposite-field two-out single to left, and tried to come all the way home when Tony Gwynn Jr. misplayed the ball for an error. But he couldn't go through the left foot of Barajas, who slapped Rafael Furcal's relay on him for the inning-ending out.

That bit of help escaping a rocky beginning was all Billingsley needed.

"Just getting back out there, I was rushing everything," he said. "Once I got that out of the way, I got into a good tempo and was able to stay on top of the ball.

"It's a new season. The idea is to keep getting better, and the way I approach Spring Training is to make sure my arm feels good, I stay healthy, I get all my pitches in and work on every one of them."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.