Billingsley was a late scratch Sunday with lingering elbow pain he felt after a Friday bullpen session and was then placed on the 15-day disabled list.
He missed the last two months of last season with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, but instead of surgery, Billingsley opted for several platelet-rich plasma injections and rest. He resumed throwing last October, hit 93 mph in a simulated game last November and didn't miss any time during Spring Training.
"I think he was pretty confident coming into Spring Training having had a good winter and been able to throw," said manager Don Mattingly. "Then when he didn't have any problem between starts, we got confident. I'm sure he's disappointed. We are, too. It's not missing a start. It's a year."
But management held its breath all along, hoping that Billingsley's elbow would hold up longer than the two starts he made this month.
"You can't make a guy do anything," said Mattingly. "The fact it seemed like it was working was energizing for him."
That said, Billingsley's uncertain health was a key factor in the club's successful pursuit of free agents Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The Dodgers went into Spring Training with eight highly paid starting pitchers, then dealt Aaron Harang to the Rockies on April 6 for Ramon Hernandez because they were convinced Billingsley was healthy.
Now with Billingsley joining Greinke (broken collarbone) and Chris Capuano (pulled calf muscle) on the sidelines, Stephen Fife was called up from Triple-A Albuquerque to take Billingsley's spot in the rotation. Ted Lilly will be activated from the disabled list Wednesday night in what had been Greinke's slot.
"We're still in good order," said Mattingly. "We'll end up with five guys that are accomplished starters [Clayton Kershaw, Ryu, Josh Beckett, Lilly and Capuano] and Greinke on top of that. Nobody wants to hear our complaints. A lot of teams would like to have five accomplished Major League starters."
Mattingly said Capuano should return when he's eligible on May 2 and that the lefty would throw a bullpen session Tuesday or Wednesday and make a rehab start before May 2.
Billingsley opened this season on the disabled list, but it was for a bruised right index finger he sustained while bunting in Spring Training. He made two starts, going 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings.
He earns $12 million next year, then there is a $14 million club option for 2015 or a $3 million buyout.
Billingsley's loss comes 11 days after the Dodgers learned they would be without Greinke for two months because of a broken collarbone sustained in a benches-clearing fracas in San Diego on April 11. The Dodgers also lost Capuano, who took over for Greinke in the rotation, to a pulled calf muscle sustained, in part, sprinting in from the bullpen during the incident.
Fife started Sunday in place of Billingsley against the Orioles and allowed three runs in the first inning, but regrouped and made it through 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits with five strikeouts and a walk.
He had been considered the club's designated replacement for Billingsley since the season started, having pitched for Albuquerque on the same days Billingsley pitched for the Dodgers.
Fife was 1-1 with a 4.61 ERA for the Isotopes, striking out 14 with three walks but allowing 20 hits. Fife, 26, was 2-0 with a 3.45 ERA in Spring Training and was 0-2 with a 2.70 ERA in five starts with the Dodgers last season.