Chad Billingsley seems like the latest successor. He beat the Giants on Wednesday night, 4-0, his first Major League shutout lifting the Dodgers above .500 for the first time in two months.
One day after turning 24, Billingsley (11-9) pitched eight stifling innings then a ninth that turned fundamental baseball on its ear. The game ended with Jose Castillo, waved home from second base by third-base coach Tim Flannery on Randy Winn's two-out single, thrown out at the plate by left fielder Andre Ethier.
Catcher Russell Martin, who had a pair of RBI singles earlier, blocked the plate and applied the tag, or the Giants would have had the tying run on deck, Billingsley probably would have been yanked and Jonathan Broxton would have been pitching with the game on the line instead of saving his arm for Thursday night's opener of the showdown series with first-place Arizona.
But things are going the Dodgers' way lately. They've won five of the last six games, four by shutout, although manager Joe Torre said things really started to click nearly a month ago when Jeff Kent's extra-inning homer beat Houston. The Dodgers' 10 shutouts lead the league.
Things clicked for Billingsley on June 17 when he beat San Diego, beginning a 7-2 run with a 2.21 ERA over his last nine starts. He took a three-hitter into the ninth against the Giants, struck out eight without a walk and now leads the staff in victories and innings pitched and is second in the league with 145 strikeouts. He's on pace to be the first Dodgers pitcher to crack 200 strikeouts in a season since Chan Ho Park in 2001.
"I know opponents don't want to face him," Martin said of Billingsley, whose overall ERA fell to 3.05. "Everything he throws moves. Even in a hitter's count, it doesn't matter, because he's not giving them an easy pitch to hit. He's a tough at-bat. He's getting swings and misses because he's got so much movement and he's not always throwing as hard as he can. He's adding and subtracting, purposely. That's what he did in the Minor Leagues. Now, he gets it."
It's not what he always did upon his arrival in the Major Leagues, or what he was doing this Spring Training, when he must have been trying to impress the new manager, but instead had him a little worried about a 6.85 ERA.
"My first exposure to him in Spring Training, he didn't pitch very well, he struggled, he was fighting himself," said Joe Torre. "Give him the ball now and you expect him to do something like this."
Billingsley agrees that he's a different pitcher.
"When I first came up, everything was 96, 95 [mph]," he said. "Right now, I know I can have success at 90-93 and if I need it, I can still dial it up. I'm learning. It's just pitching."
Billingsley had a cushion to work with early. Dodgers rallies in the first and third innings off Jonathan Sanchez had the same look and feel, beginning with walks to Matt Kemp (leading off with Juan Pierre resting) and soon followed by Martin's RBI singles. The third-inning scoring continued with Jeff Kent's RBI double and James Loney's sacrifice fly. In addition to the two walks and two runs, Kemp had two stolen bases and extended his hitting streak to 17 games with a fifth-inning single.
Billingsley enjoyed defensive gems from center fielder Andruw Jones, third baseman Casey Blake, shortstop Angel Berroa and Kent's late replacement at second, Pablo Ozuna, in the ninth inning. He retired the first 12 Giants hitters and another seven straight before Castillo doubled off the top of the wall in right field just before Winn's single led to the game-ending play.
"When Winn hit his, I said, 'Oh, man,'" said Billingsley. "Then Andre got there and made a great throw and Russell blocked the plate and put the tag. It was a weird way to end a shutout, but I'll take it."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less