WASHINGTON -- For the first half of the 2009 season, sending right-hander Chad Billingsley to the mound every fifth day was a no-brainer.
Through the All-Star break, the 25-year-old went 9-4 with a 3.38 ERA, including a season-opening stretch of four wins in a row during which he posted a 2.05 ERA in a 26 1/3-inning span.
He was the undisputed ace of a team that had sat atop the National League West standings since April 19, and which now sees its magic number to clinch a playoff spot at two.
But like most good players do at one time or another, Billingsley has hit a slump. He will try to snap out of that slump Wednesday night when he faces the Nationals.
Since the All-Star Game, in which he allowed one run in one inning, Billingsley has posted a 3-6 record and 5.49 ERA. While his overall numbers on the season still look fine on paper -- 12-10, 4.05 ERA in 31 games, with 165 strikeouts in 184 1/3 innings -- they haven't looked quite as rosy in real time of late.
After a rough July in which he was 1-2 with a 7.52 ERA in five starts, it looked like he might be turning things around in August with a 3.21 ERA in five starts. However, he left two of those starts early, both times with mild hamstring problems, and in four September games -- three of them starts -- his ERA is back up to 6.11.
Billingsley, who went 16-10 with a 3.14 ERA in 2008, has not won a game in more than a month, his last victory coming Aug. 18, when he allowed two runs on three hits in six innings against the Cardinals.
The Dodgers' first-round pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft won't blame his problems on the hamstring woes, but he says he will just keep trying to figure out what the issues have been and solve them.
"Every day I try to go out there and figure something out, keep battling," Billingsley said earnestly. "I'm trying to get my work in between starts, throwing bullpens, but you can do as much work as you want between starts, but when you're out there, that's what it all comes down to."
Given the marked success Billingsley has enjoyed since turning pro, with a 3.33 ERA since arriving in the Majors in 2006 and a 3.18 ERA in the Minors before that, it can only be a matter of time before he gets back in the groove he's known so well.
"It's just a matter of trying to find that feel and get that rhythm back," he said. "When times are good, you don't really think a whole lot, it just happens. But sometimes when things aren't going so well, you try to do too much or not do enough. You start pressing."
The Dodgers tried moving him to the bullpen for one relief outing, a spot not unfamiliar to him as he came up in relief originally. But even that outing Friday was shaky, as Billingsley gave up two runs on four hits in 1 2/3 innings.
Billingsley's return to the rotation Wednesday comes in Los Angeles' second game of a three-game series at Washington, a series which kicks off the team's last regular-season road trip, a nine-game stretch in D.C., Pittsburgh and San Diego before the Dodgers return home for their last three games of the season against the Rockies.
Somewhere in that span, the current six-man rotation will have to be whittled down to, probably, four starters for the postseason, and while ideally the club would love to see its early-season ace in that quartet, he's going to have to turn things around to get there.
"The thing that's good is he's healthy, which is important," said manager Joe Torre. "But he hasn't had that 'feel' over the last few starts."
So while Wednesday's start isn't exactly a make-or-break one for Billingsley yet, it will certainly factor into the looming decision Torre will have to make (the other five in the picture are Hiroki Kuroda, Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw).
For now, though, Billingsley just wants to regain the magic.
"Every time you step out there, it's an unbelievable experience, one you dream about when you're a young kid," he said. "And it's supposed to be fun. When it's going bad, it's not quite that way. For me right now, I want that to happen, so it's even more frustrating."
Still, there is one thing Billingsley has learned about baseball, and he hopes it serves him well on Wednesday night.
"You have to have a short-term memory," he said.