Powerful Middle Infield Duo of Luis Cruz & Mark Ellis Back Chad Billingsley

Luis Cruz, leading the way with a three run homer. Just the way we drew it up, right? “Luis Cruz being awesome” has become something of a running joke on this site for reasons you’re probably all aware of, and while I’m not going to go too overboard about a guy who still only has a .297 OBP, the fact is that more than half of his hits have been for extra bases, and he’s been solid in the field.

Of course, the best part of Cruz’ dinger may not even have been the runs it put on the board, but the fact that it came back on the field and bopped Matt Holliday on the head, as you can see at right. (GIF from EephusBlue’s “Paint the Corners” blog, which I have borrowed for here because it’s just so fantastic. I have watched this approximately 1,000,000 times.)

Cruz’ blast, along with Mark Ellis‘ two-run double in the seventh, staked Chad Billingsley to a win in his first start since returning from the disabled list. On a brutally hot 104 degree night in a ballpark he hasn’t always had success in, Billingsley shook off concerns over his elbow to make it through six innings allowing just one run, though I’ll admit it was far from a work of art. With the trading deadline just a week away and rumors about the Dodgers acquiring another starter swirling, it was vital that Billingsley show he can be counted upon going forward, and he did a good job in a tough situation.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Ronald Belisario, who came in for Jamey Wright in the eighth inning and allowed a Carlos Beltran homer. Earlier this summer, I dared to suggest that while Belisario’s comeback was remarkable, it was hard to look at his low BABIP and his mediocre K/BB and think that this was going to keep up. Belisario has now allowed nine hits and eight runs over his last seven innings, and whether he just needs a rest or it’s something else, his performance is clearly becoming a problem. Kenley Jansen blew away the Cardinals to close it out in the ninth, and looked great doing it.

On the other hand, Belisario’s poor outing did allow for some A+ idiocy from Steve Lyons, who trotted out his old chestnut that Beltran’s home run was actually a good thing because it killed the rally, or some such foolishness. He then went on to mumble that he’d actually rather have seven doubles in a row than homers, because “it would keep the pressure on the pitcher,” before attempting to make sound effects with his mouth.

This man is employed by a major league team. Is this our punishment for having been so lucky with Vin for so long?

Chad Billingsley Frustrates Once Again

Well, at least they lost in a more interesting fashion tonight than they did in Oakland?

I’m not going to go through the motions of defending Chad Billingsley‘s performance tonight, because how can you? Staked to a 5-0 lead by an offense which finally showed some life, it took Billingsley just three innings to give it all back and then some. I could say that the Angels are one of the hottest teams in baseball, or that he entered tonight with a FIP that was better than that of Yu Darvish, Dan Haren, Jordan Zimmermann, Chris Capuano, & Matt Garza, but it’s not even worth it. He never once retired the Angels in order tonight, he allowed four extra-base hits among the ten Anaheim collected off him, and he basically fell apart at the worst possible time, considering how difficult it’s been for this club to score lately. He was awful.

So yes, Billingsley was very poor tonight, his second consecutive bad start after two very good ones, and you’ll get not a word of disagreement on that from me. It’s unbelievably frustrating to watch him go through these periods, because you have no idea what you’ll get out of him on any given night, and I have absolutely no idea how to fix that; there’s a not-at-all-small part of me which wonders if he’ll ever change. In fact, tonight’s game was so bad, what with Jamey Wright pouring gasoline on the fire and the offense completely disappearing after the second inning, that I don’t even want to talk about it anymore or think about it ever again.

Instead, a thought question. Heading into tonight’s game, these two Dodger starters each had 14 starts this season. Their primary pitching stats could not have been more similar:

A) 81.2 IP  3.74 FIP  3.95 xFIP 8.27 K/9 3.31 BB/9 1.1 fWAR
B) 86.1 IP  3.82 FIP  3.91 xFIP 8.34 K/9 3.23 BB/9 1.1 fWAR

That’s Billingsley in line “A”, and Capuano in line “B”, and I don’t show these stats to try to defend Billingsley’s performance tonight. (Obviously, these numbers are not going to look so similar when tonight’s mess is included.) I point them out because I find the perception gap between these two pitchers fascinating. If you were to ask a random sampling of Dodger fans how they feel about the two, I’m guessing their reactions would be phenomenally different. Regarding Capuano, you’d probably hear terms like “All-Star selection” and “best signing of the winter”; for Billingsley, of the few replies which would even be printable, you’d almost certainly hear responses like “get rid of the loser” and that “he doesn’t have any heart”.

I suppose I’m not entirely sure why that is, though Capuano does have the built-in advantage of being the newcomer off to a nice start while Billingsley has been his usual frustrating self. (We’ve talked about the incredibly misleading effect a hot debut can have dozens of times around here, in regards mainly to Juan Rivera, Orlando Hudson, & Rod Barajas; at this point, Elian Herrera could probably go hitless for the rest of the season and people would still love him – and it works the other way, too, because people still hate Todd Coffey.) I’m sure that’s part of it, but I’m also really, really hoping that the simplest answer isn’t the correct one, just because we’ve all worked so, so hard to move past wins and ERA by now. Capuano’s at 8-2 and 2.71 while Billingsley was at 4-5, 3.75 before tonight’s game, with the ERA gap being largely due to a BABIP from Capuano which is greatly out of line with his career numbers.

That’s probably part of it too, but maybe it’s also that they’ve arrived at those similar numbers in very different ways. Capuano has been more consistent, providing fewer moments of heartburn or opportunities for criticism. Billingsley, obviously, has had several terrible outings which opens him up hugely to critics, but his masterpiece in San Diego to start the season provided him with a Game Score that is unmatched by any Dodger by a wide margin this season. (And as Jon Weisman showed recently, his reputation for “meltdown innings” isn’t really deserved.)

When you include tonight’s game, the numbers will be clearly favoring Capuano, and that’s fine; I like, everyone else, would absolutely pick Capuano over Billingsley if I had to win one game right now. Still, for two guys who hadn’t really performed all that differently before tonight, it’s interesting to see the kind of massive perception gap that’s arisen between them. I think people have just made up their minds about Billingsley at this point, accurate or not, because he’s not the Kershaw-level ace his draft position and early performance indicated that he could be. It’s unfortunate that this is going to start up the “DFA Billingsley!” nonsense again – and yes, fans will be saying that; they’ll be hilariously wrong, of course, but expect it – yet after tonight’s disappointment, it’s best to just sadly nod your head and move on.

For tonight, at least, there’s no argument to be had.

One Rally Can’t Make Up For Eight Punchless Innings As Dodgers Fall to White Sox

This is probably going to be one of those games that re-ignites the Chad Billingsley wars, despite how good he had been his last two times out. Billingsley further added to his reputation of being consistently inconsistent by following up those two starts with tonight’s clunker, though it’s fair to note that the game very well might have been tied when he departed had Jerry Hairston not booted a simple ground ball in the fourth inning that helped lead to the go-ahead run.

On offense, basically everything worthwhile came in the third inning, as the Dodgers turned six singles (including one of two by Billingsley) into four runs. That’s all well and good, but they managed just three other singles in the other eight innings – none after Billingsley’s second hit, coming in the fourth inning – and it further underscores how tough it is to put together a good offense without that big bat. Entering the night, the Dodgers had the second-best OBP in baseball, but only the 20th-best slugging percentage. That usually means your offense relies on stringing together several hits in a row, and while that’s wonderful when it happens (like in that third inning), it’s incredibly difficult to score when it doesn’t. A double here and there – or lord forbid, even a homer, of which only two teams in baseball have hit fewer – would do wonders. (Obviously, this isn’t much of a surprise considering how long Matt Kemp has been out.)

Chris Capuano attempts to put an end to his recent slide and help the Dodgers take the series against rookie lefty Jose Quintana, Sunday at 1pm PST.

Chad Billingsley Knows How to Win, Cliff Lee Does Not

That is how the narrative goes, right? I mean, Cliff Lee is 0-3!

For seven innings, Lee was absolutely masterful, striking out twelve Dodgers while allowing just two singles and absolutely nothing even resembling a threat. Honestly, it’s probably the most impressive performance I’ve seen by an opposing pitcher in a long time, and while the Dodgers aren’t exactly a world-class offense these days, it hardly mattered; Lee was just this side of being perfect.

Lee needed to be that good, because Chad Billingsley was just a step behind, having allowed only a run in the first inning on two hits and little else. (And being bailed out to end that inning on an admittedly nice defensive play by Andre Ethier at the wall.) Though he hardly dominated in the way Lee did, striking out three over seven innings (and one of those was Lee), he did a fantastic job of keeping the Phillies off the board after the first, with the game flying by as the two starters set down hitter after hitter. Every time Billingsley tosses out an incredibly frustrating outing and we point out that while he may be inconsistent, the entire package is still worthwhile, it’s games like this and his season debut in San Diego that we point to.

Still, Billingsley looked doomed to a 1-0 defeat and another round of “he doesn’t have the guts” jokes until Lee was touched for two runs in an unorthodox eight inning. Matt Treanor (!) led off with a double but was cut down at third on Tony Gwynn‘s ill-advised bunt. I actually don’t even mind the bunt in that situation as much as you’d think, since it’s not like Gwynn had much of a chance to get a hit off of Lee, but if you’re going to try to bunt the man to third it’d be nice if A) you didn’t bunt it to the third-base side and B) you didn’t have the lead-footed Treanor on the bases. (I had a fantastic anti-bunt GIF to use here, but since the Dodgers won, we’ll save it for another night.) Bobby Abreu followed with a single to right field, yet the Dodgers made a second out at third when Gwynn was gunned down by a fantastic Hunter Pence throw.

With two outs, Dee Gordon stepped in against Lee, and while his single won’t at all be remembered, it’s notable, because the expected weak strikeout or groundout there would have ended the threat. Instead, he pushed a single through the right side, and that set the stage for Elian Herrera to be the hero for the second night in a row, driving in both Abreu & Gordon with a two-run double off the left field wall. (As I joked on Twitter, Juan Pierre‘s attempt at coming down with that ball was probably the most valuable he’s ever been for the Dodgers.)

Josh Lindblom & Kenley Jansen finished with two clean innings, and all of a sudden the Dodgers have taken the first two games of the series. Chad Billingsley “beat” Cliff Lee, and Elian Herrera is forcing us all to take notice of him. I can’t say I know exactly what’s going on here, but yet again, I’m loving it.

Scott Van Slyke Is Your Hero Du Jour As Dodgers Sweep

With two on and the Dodgers down 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh, Andre Ethier struck out for the second out of the inning. Rather than send up veteran Adam Kennedy, who’d already reached base twice in the game, Don Mattingly identified that Cardinal pitcher Marc Rzepczynski is death on lefties, and dipped into his bench to call on rookie outfielder Scott Van Slyke. Let’s call that, “surprising decision number one”. Rzepczynski quickly fell behind 3-0, the kind of situation where just about every rookie would have the bat glued to his shoulder.

But in his second surprising – and I say that not in a negative way, just in that these were not decisions I would normally have expected Mattingly to make – decision of the at-bat, Mattingly gave Van Slyke the green light on 3-0. One pitch deposited into the left field bleachers later, the Dodgers had a 6-5 lead, Van Slyke had his first career home run, and the Dodgers had continued their streak of what seems to be a new hero every single night.

That blast was dearly needed, because it was the only extra-base hit the Dodgers had among their 14 hits on the day – no, that’s not a typo, as you can probably guess – which meant that despite all the runners they had on base, they’d managed a mere three runs, not enough to overcome a somewhat backwards Chad Billingsley start. When he struggled to begin the game tonight, he kept the runs off the board. When he was making better pitches, he got victimized for five runs. Baseball is just a ridiculous sport sometimes.

Facing ten St. Louis batters over the first two innings, Billingsley allowed four singles and three walks, including loading the bases with no outs in the top of the second. He managed to escape the first inning in part to a K/CS double play, then ended the mess in the second by getting Rafael Furcal to bounce into a 1-2-3 double play; he then set down the Cardinals in order in the third & fourth, including strikeouts of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, & David Freese, and it looked like he’d found the groove.

Yet in the fifth, the Cards scored three in an inning fueled mainly by Billingsley’s error before allowing a Skip Schumaker triple; in the sixth, he allowed two more on three of the bloopiest bloops that ever BABIP’d. That’s not to excuse his entire performance, of course, because he was consistently missing spots, just that between the tight zone, defensive miscues, and well-placed balls, this was a Billingsley start which required far more than just reading the final stat line.

Then again, tonight was a night of miscues all around. Cory Blaser’s strike zone behind the plate was about the size of a thimble, affecting both pitchers but seemingly focusing more on Billingsley. Beyond Billingsley’s own error, Justin Sellers‘ error leading off the sixth wasn’t directly responsible for runs, but got the only other inning in which the Cardinals scored off to the wrong foot. At least two St. Louis outs on the bases – Furcal trying to steal in the first & Yadier Molina attempting to advance to third in the sixth – were incorrectly called. And then perhaps the funniest of all, Kennedy stroked a single to right field in the bottom of the sixth, which Beltran played as though it was a chemical weapon – yet instead of the single + error it should have been, it’ll go into the books as a triple for Kennedy.

Still, for the first Dodger game on national TV this year, it was an unqualified success. Elian Herrera & Bobby Abreu each had three hits, while Andre Ethier & James Loney each had two – and don’t look now, but Loney has been very good recently. In relief of Billingsley, Javy Guerra, Josh Lindblom, & Kenley Jansen pitched three flawless innings. About the only thing that didn’t go perfectly was A.J. Ellis failing to get on base for the first time in over a month, ending his consecutive games streak one short of the Dodger record for catchers. You should probably vote him for All-Star anyway, just to console him.

With the sweep of the division-leading Cardinals, the Dodgers should hopefully have made a statement. They’re 28-13, the best record in baseball. I can’t believe just about anything that’s happening right now, but I love it.