How The Dodgers Reached First Place
While Detroit Tigers’ slugging first baseman Miguel Cabrera marveled at Dodger Stadium, his teammate Dontrelle Willis would have to object. Dodger Stadium has been a house of horrors for the starting pitcher throughout his career. While with the Florida Marlins he made three starts in Los Angeles to come away with a 0-2 record and a 5.30 ERA and a 1.607 WHIP. The passage of time and a change of leagues did nothing change his fortunes as the Dodgers beat up on him and the Detroit Tigers 4-1 in his first start at Dodger Stadium since July 6, 2007.
Admittedly it looked like Willis had exorcised his Dodger demons retiring ten of the first 12 batters he faced - the two base runners coming on an error by third baseman Brandon Inge to lead off the bottom of the first and a single by Reed Johnson in the second inning. But the Dodgers pounced at the first chink in his armor.
With two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning and the Tigers leading 1-0 Matt Kemp lined a single to left field. Not helping his own cause Willis made a wild pitch that sent Kemp to second and walked Casey Blake and Johnson to load the bases. Nick Green, who had all of five at-bats with the Dodgers this season and starting at second in place of Blake DeWitt, was grazed on his back foot on a 1-1 slider which forced Kemp home and tied the game 1-1
Willis further contributed to his downfall in the fifth inning with a one-out walk to Jamey Carroll. After Ronnie Belliard lined a double down the right field line sending Carroll to third, Willis made another wild pitch that scored Carroll and sent Belliard to third giving the Dodgers the 2-1 lead.
Manny Ramirez then hit an infield single that ricocheted off of third baseman Inge that scored Belliard for the 3-1 lead.
After back-to-back one-out singles to Johnson and Green, Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland pulled Willis for reliever Eddie Bonine.
Bonine promptly gave up an RBI single to AJ Ellis that gave the Dodgers the 4-1 lead, but retired Billingsley and Carroll to end the threat.
Meanwhile for Dodgers’ starter Chad Billingsley, things were the other way around.
He struggled in the first inning with Tigers’ centerfielder Austin Jackson leading off the game with a ten-pitch at-bat. Jackson won that faceoff hitting a double to shallow left field that dropped in front of a charging Manny who was making his first start since injuring the pinkie toe on his left foot Wednesday afternoon.
Magglio Ordoñez cashed in Jackson with a sacrifice fly to right field giving the Tigers the 1-0 lead.
However Billingsley bounced back and continued where he left off in his last start in San Diego when he threw 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball. Billingsley went seven innings giving up only that one run in the first while striking out five.
“He just seems more comfortable,” Torre remarked. “It looks like he’s just trusting it a lot more. It doesn’t look like he’s out there trying to throw strikes. I think he’s just trusting that the ball is going to find its way.”
“I’ve been continuing to working on my delivery and getting better,” Billingsley said. “I’ve been aggressive with my fastball and mixing in my curveball.”
And backing up Billingsley on offense was a lineup without Russell Martin, James Loney and Blake DeWitt.
“You face Dontrelle Willis you have your right hand line up in there,” Torre said. Although Martin is a right-hander, having started 22 consecutive games behind the plate he was more than overdue for a day off.
“It was nice giving Russell [Martin] a complete day off. We had talked before the game last night. He was about ready of one. It was just a matter of if it was going to be today or tomorrow.”
Manny’s foot might have been all right enough for him to start, but his defense seemed to have suffered from the rust. Not only did he miss the fly ball by Jackson in the first inning, he also allowed a two-out double by Brandon Inge to drop into left center field in the fourth inning that could have been made had he seen the ball.
“He’s still nursing that thing,” Torre said about Manny’s toe. “He said it feels okay. He may have been a little ginger on it, but hopefully it continues to get better.”
To counter that bad taste, Matt Kemp made a shoestring diving catch to end of the fifth.
The Dodgers winners in 11 of their last 12 games have improved to a Major League-best 15-4 in the month of May. Also combined with the San Diego Padres’ 15-8 loss to the Seattle Mariners, the Dodgers have a share of first place in the NL West.
“Our success the last couple of weeks has been based on our pitching,” Torre said. “It was no different tonight. Billingsley was terrific.
“And we do little things. We get a run here, a run there and take advantage of some situations.”