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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS : Bill Shaikin / ON
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Billingsley needs to be a hanging-in-there Chad

October 15, 2008|Bill Shaikin

They're called labels because they stick. Larry Bowa, the Dodgers' coach, can tell you all about labels.

Bowa got his big break in 1987, when the San Diego Padres appointed him as manager. He got one year and 46 games, and he got labeled as a hothead, as too emotional to manage. He waited 13 years for a second chance.

That brings us to Chad Billingsley, who got a career's worth of labels tossed at him last week. He starts tonight for the Dodgers, trying to keep their season alive and keep those labels from sticking.

Can't stop the big inning. Won't protect his hitters. Blames his catcher.

Billingsley has broad shoulders, but not so broad as to shoulder all those burdens. He shouldn't have to, anyway, but perception is reality. If he falters again tonight, perception has six months to grow roots.

The Philadelphia Phillies go with their ace, Cole Hamels. The Dodgers go with Billingsley. This matchup is a lot closer, and a lot more intriguing, than the marquee might lead you to believe.

Hamels is 24, and so is Billingsley, each a first-round draft pick. Hamels made his major league debut May 12, 2006; Billingsley made his 34 days later.

The Phillies left Hamels in their starting rotation; he made the All-Star team in 2007. The Dodgers redirected Billingsley into a bullpen apprenticeship and did not return him to their rotation until June 2007, after the Jason Schmidt signing had blown up on them.

But check the National League statistics for 2008: Hamels ranked sixth in earned-run average, Billingsley seventh. Billingsley ranked fifth in strikeouts, Hamels sixth.

Billingsley went 16-10, Hamels 14-10.

We'll stop there. Hamels has an outstanding changeup, one of the elite pitches in baseball. Billingsley still throws too many pitches and walks too many batters, so he labors when he should overpower.

But he doesn't give in, not when opponents batted .219 with runners in scoring position.

In Game 2, the Phillies tagged him for a career-high eight runs. In June, it's a mulligan. In October, he's not strong enough to stop the big inning.

That perception, and the one about him not willing to protect his teammates, is further fueled by interviews with Billingsley, who speaks softly rather than swaggers.

"This guy's competitiveness is off the charts," said Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for scouting. "But he's not one of those players that's going to be brash, or brag about it."

He didn't throw at any of the Phillies' hitters after Philadelphia's Brett Myers nearly beheaded Manny Ramirez in the first inning? He knows better, now.

"He's sensitive, yet he's very aggressive and very sure of himself," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said. "And I think he was mad at himself for being sort of in between at the start."

Billingsley said as much, in fewer words, in character.

"I just didn't throw inside enough," Billingsley said.

He said a bit more, a little bit, about his comments after Game 2. Billingsley attributed some of his difficulties to pitch selection, and some reporters took that to mean he tossed the blame to catcher Russell Martin.

Billingsley was astonished to hear that anyone interpreted his remarks that way. Martin has caught him since rookie ball.

"Me and Russ know each other so well," Billingsley said. "He knows the pitches I have confidence in, what I like to throw in certain situations.

"I wasn't executing very well."

The Phillies are well aware they caught Billingsley on a bad day last time. Philadelphia outfielder Shane Victorino, a minor league teammate of Billingsley at double-A Jacksonville four years ago, said the stuff is fine.

"I think the only adjustment he's going to try to make is to get us out," Victorino said, "and not give up as many runs as he did last time."

This start is for the Dodgers, for his teammates, and for himself. Those labels could stick to him, all winter and next spring, in the clubhouse and beyond, if he does not remove them today.

He ought to take the mound with an attitude, with the name of the small Ohio town in which he grew up.

Defiance.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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