Unbeaten Chad Billingsley pitched the first complete game of his career, a five-hit, 10-2 whipping of the Astros, giving the entire weary bullpen a day off and the Dodgers their biggest National League West lead (two games) in two months.
"It came at a good time for us, as we all know," said manager Grady Little, who was down to his third-string closer (Joe Beimel) for this game, with Takashi Saito in transit after an MRI exam, and Jonathan Broxton worn out over the weekend.
"It's what we need to get us back on track. It's a situation where a lot of guys in the past week knew what was needed. Going out and doing it is a different story. The kid went out and did it, and that was big."
Billingsley (7-0) had plenty of runs with which to work. The 17-hit Dodgers attack included a 4-for-4 night from former Astro Jeff Kent, three RBIs from former Astro Luis Gonzalez, a three-run homer from Houston-area native James Loney and three more hits from Nomar Garciaparra, whose .283 average is at a seven-week high. It was the first time in five weeks that those three hitters drove in runs in the same game.
Billingsley made 109 pitches, fewer than he used last week in five innings against Philadelphia, and Little had no intention of yanking him with a 7-0 lead after seven innings. He was throwing as hard (95 mph) at the end as the beginning, and he fell one out short of a shutout when Luke Scott slugged a two-run homer after Mike Lamb's sharp single scooted under Loney's glove.
"It's still a complete game and I'm happy with it," said Billingsley, who had never pitched more than seven innings in 22 previous Major League starts. "I wanted to go deep into the game and give the bullpen a rest. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable this year than last year. I worked on the changeup a lot while I was in the bullpen, and it's helping out a lot now."
Billingsley learned about the demands on relievers when he was one over the first 2 1/2 months of the season, but he's been starting since Jason Schmidt's shoulder surgery in mid-June. He went 4-0 in the bullpen and is 3-0 as a starter with four no-decisions, the latter category coming into play because he usually throws too many pitches to be around late in the game.
Not the case Monday night, but it will take a few more starts to determine if the reason was overanxious Houston hitters or a Billingsley breakthrough.
"He got a lot of quick outs and that helped him a lot," said Little, whose club is 6-1 in Billingsley's starts.
Catcher Russell Martin elaborated.
"Today, even when he fell behind, he got quick outs," said Martin. "He'd throw a good cutter and they'd pop it up. The adjustment he's made is throwing his offspeed when he's behind in counts and getting outs. Normally he gets swing and misses, and that tends to run up the pitch count. Now he's pitching more to contact. When he needs a punchout, he gets it. He's becoming, slowly, one of the best pitchers in the league -- 7-0, not many guys doing that."
Martin said Billingsley was able to dominate in the Minor Leagues without the offspeed pitch, because he could overpower those hitters. Major League hitters, he said, are more selective and capable of working deeper into counts.
Billingsley said he had all of his pitches in the climate-controlled Minute Maid Field, a contrast to last week at Dodger Stadium, where a finger blister left him with no feel for the fastball.
"That was the big thing," the righty said. "I'm a power guy, and without a fastball, it could be a rough outing," he said. "The finger held up well."
Billingsley credited a change in his between-starts throwing pattern, replacing a typical 45-pitch bullpen session with two brief "touch-and-feel" sessions Saturday and Sunday.
Offensively, Kent led the way. His two doubles tied him with Ted Williams for 32nd all-time at 525. Kent's average, which bottomed out at .254 on June 17, has climbed to .292. He's hitting .400 in July.
Loney, whose only other game at Minute Maid Park came in the 2002 state high school regionals, when he pitched a shutout, left 40 tickets for family and friends.
"It was a great opportunity to play against the team I grew up watching," he said.
Garciaparra, who turned 34 Monday, homered in the two previous games and added his first three-hit game of July. His .283 average is higher than it's been since early June.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.