Billingsley wins Dodgers' third straight

Billingsley wins Dodgers' third straight

HOUSTON -- The vague announcement was "back stiffness," but Jeff Kent made it sound like his early departure from Thursday's 5-2 Dodgers win over the Astros was more about what he can do than what he can't.

He's squeezing one last season out of his 40-year-old body for one last shot at a ring, and as he sensed even when times were tough all the way back in June, anything is possible.

Proof is that the Dodgers, three games below .500, remained 1 1/2 games back of first-place Arizona after Chad Billingsley ran his win streak to four and the Dodgers ran theirs to three.

So, already playing in a day game after a night game -- with a 3 1/2-hour flight on tap and a day game in San Francisco on deck Friday -- Kent took a half-day off in one city where he once played and expected to be in the lineup when the Dodgers open a series in another city where he once played.

"I don't really have a back problem," he said. "I'm just dealing with it. It was just an opportune time to not have to fight it. We're up four runs with a day game in San Francisco tomorrow, and Chad was pitching a good game. I'm looking forward to San Francisco, so that's another reason why you take more precautions. I'm not about to argue with Joe."

That would be manager Joe Torre, whose best offensive player the first month, Rafael Furcal, underwent back surgery before the game and is out for eight weeks. Torre wasn't taking any chances when Kent felt the twinges 40-year-old bodies often feel.

When reporters lobbed doom-and-gloom questions at Kent while the Dodgers struggled the first three months of the season, Kent cautioned that it was too soon to panic. He was consistent with his message the other way after this game, reminding that young players and young reporters should note that the schedule is only half-done.

"You have to hold the reins back on the young guys -- and I mean young reporters -- not to get so excited and not to be doom-and-gloom," he said. "There are frustrations. There's excitement. You just have to understand the length of the season and deal with the highs and lows. We've been in a situation where we've just tried not to get too far behind."

Before he left the game, Kent went 1-for-2 with a walk and a run scored. Over his past 15 games, he is 19-for-50, raising his average from .239 to .266.

The Dodgers seemed to have been energized after losing the opener of this four-game series, in which they scored one run on 11 hits. Torre said the 11-inning win Tuesday night, after blowing a five-run lead, was the key.

Now, even in the wake of Furcal's surgery and the loss of Juan Pierre, reinforcements will meet the Dodgers in San Francisco, as Andruw Jones and Nomar Garciaparra return to the lineup Friday.

"We played the last three games with a sense of determination," said Torre. "I don't know why I feel that way, I just have a good feel. We're certainly getting a couple experienced guys back. You talk about youth, now we're inserting guys who have been around the block a couple times. It gives you a little of a settling feeling."

So does a solid pitched game, which is what Billingsley gave the Dodgers. He went eight innings and said he could have gone nine, charged with two unearned runs that scored after Luis Maza, who took over for Kent, booted a routine grounder.

By then, Houston native James Loney had driven in a pair of runs with a homer and double, Blake DeWitt had singled in a pair and Andre Ethier had homered for the second consecutive game (tying Kent and Russell Martin for the club lead with nine).

The last time Billingsley pitched, he won, even though his offense didn't get a hit. This time, it provided him with a three-run lead in the first inning and he knew what to do with it against an Astros lineup too aggressive for its own good.

"I got through the first four innings without even throwing offspeed pitches," said Billingsley. "I used my four-seam and two-seam and got ahead of their hitters with first-pitch strikes and was locating well. It was a fun day to pitch. I wish it could be that way all the time."

After losing his first four decisions, Billingsley is now 8-7, with quality starts in three of his past four. He went eight innings with 92 pitches and unsuccessfully lobbied Torre to finish it off, a task Takashi Saito turned into his 14th save.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.