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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Chad Billingsley has an inside job to do

The Dodgers pitcher, criticized for failing to protect teammates during the playoffs, then felled by a broken leg after slipping on ice in off-season, appears determined to set things right.

January 14, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

So, in his final two games, he gave up 11 runs in five innings, ripped by Philadelphia Phillies hitters at the plate, ripped by teammates in the clubhouse, booed by fans everywhere.

At least Chad Billingsley was wearing the right shoes.

About a month later, in a tiny Pennsylvania town, he stepped out onto his back porch to admire one of the winter's first snowfalls.

Wearing sandals.

Moments later, his bare feet were covered in snow and his leg was filled with pain after he had slipped on a patch of ice.

"Yeah, sandals," he says, filling the phone with an amazed laugh.

He was diagnosed with a broken bone in his lower left leg, an injury requiring surgery and pretty much finishing what Shane Victorino started.

"It was kind of stupid," he says, no longer laughing.

But, for the Dodgers, what happened next should be considered kind of promising.

The snap in Billingsley's leg set off some kind of alarm in his focus. Having had enough of Phillies and fibulas, he is turning his misfortune into a mission.

For his rehabilitation, he has thrown a nerf ball with buddies, thrown a baseball while sitting in a chair, and lifted weights while standing on one leg.

"I really want to get back on the mound," he says.

For his next act, he is coming to spring training so early, even the Dodgers won't be there.

He is driving to Arizona this weekend, and will work out elsewhere until the new spring facility is ready, with his leg expected to be healed by then.

"All I care about is winning," he says. "Whatever it takes."

This quiet determination seemed to be missing at the end of last season, when his pitches were bombed and his reputation was hammered.

It happened in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, when Billingsley hit several Phillies bats and broke one major clubhouse law.

Throughout the night, Phillies pitchers chased Dodgers hitters off the plate while Billingsley -- who should have been more confidently aggressive with his 16 regular-season wins and 3.14 ERA -- let Phillies hitters comfortably stand.

Dodgers hitters ducked while Phillies hitters swatted. Dodgers hitters dived while Phillies hitters soared. The Phillies took an 8-5 victory while Billingsley gave up eight runs (seven earned) without even making it out of the third inning.

Afterward, when asked about getting knocked back by Phillies pitcher Brett Myers, Manny Ramirez said it all.

"I want to have a guy like that on my team," he said.

Meaning, he did not. Meaning, Billingsley was not.

The next day, at least one team employee said that Billingsley had instantly lost the respect of his teammates.

Everyone forgot his 200 2/3 innings pitched, his 201 strikeouts, his Cy Young potential, and his ripe old age of 24. Everyone remembered how, earlier in the season, San Francisco's Matt Cain hit Ramirez in the head and Billingsley didn't retaliate then, either.

The sweaty, cramped Dodger Stadium clubhouse was chilly for the kid, and it got even worse a couple of days later when he was booed off the field after giving up three runs in 2 2/3 innings in the Phillies' clinching victory.

"It was a learning experience," Billingsley says in a phone interview.

In typical stoic fashion, that's all he says.

There were players who personally challenged him to pitch tougher, but he won't comment on it. There was buzz that Billingsley was so overwhelmed by the criticism, it affected his next performance, but he won't go there either.

"I'm not going to talk about it," he says. "I'm moving forward with what I learned."

At least he said he'd learned. Here's guessing that was all Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, needed to hear.

"Those games were a blip on the screen, isolated incidents magnified by the environment," Colletti says. "I think the kid has worked his way into a top-of-the-rotation starter, and I trust him."

He'd better. In a week during which the Dodgers lost Derek Lowe -- while increasing their search for the likes of Randy Wolf, Jon Garland or Braden Looper -- a more aggressive Billingsley could be their best off-season acquisition.

He was 7-2 with a 2.99 ERA after the All-Star break. His strikeout-to-walk ratio, which used to be atrocious, improved to a more manageable 2.51. It's all there, and now includes the experience of his first long season and first embarrassing setback.

"I just really want to get back on the mound and get back to winning," Billingsley says.

He really wants to get back on the mound. He said that several times during our 20-minute interview. He may not want to talk specifically about last October, but everything else he says speaks volumes.

A month after the injury, Colletti received a Christmas card from the Billingsley family. It featured a photo of Chad, his wife, Tiffany, and their two dogs posing in front of their home in a Christmas scene.

Posing on the same kind of snow that broke his leg.

"I thought to myself, this is a kid who needs to send his next Christmas card from the beach," Colletti says. "Next year, he needs to have blue water behind him."

Filled, perhaps, with a couple of splashing guys he knocked in there with his fastball.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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Braves land Lowe

Former Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe agrees to a four-year, $60-million deal with Atlanta. PAGE 7

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