After changing from his No. 58 uniform to a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, pitcher Chad Billingsley sat in front of his locker in a noisy Dodgers' clubhouse, lowered his eyes to the floor and searched for the right words.
Until this last weekend, "anybody who was watching the games could see we weren't playing well," Billingsley said in his typical soft-spoken manner. "We definitely haven't played well. But we've got a really good team and we know we are good. It's just executing."
And if the right-hander chose his comments even more carefully than usual — he often ended sentences in midstream and started over — it's understandable.
Outfielder Matt Kemp might have been the one who recently caught flak about the Dodgers' woeful start from a frustrated General Manager Ned Colletti, but Billingsley might better personify the club's struggle to right itself.
After being pummeled during the Dodgers' dreary 2-7 trip last month that left them in the division cellar, Billingsley had told reporters he still was throwing "quality pitches" — until Manager Joe Torre soon corrected him.
Since that reality check, Billingsley has pitched much better, lowering his earned-run average with his last two starts from 7.07 to 4.85. The Dodgers overall have followed suit. They are hitting again, led by Andre Ethier's four home runs in the last three games, and their once-porous defense is no longer the worst in the majors. Suddenly the Dodgers are climbing closer to a .500 record.
But it's an open question whether Billingsley and the rest of the team have the depth to keep playing well as they try to defend their National League West title. As they resume their homestand Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Dodgers still face several problems:
-- The starting rotation falls off sharply after Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw. With Vicente Padilla on the disabled list and Charlie Haeger ineffective, the Dodgers are relying on two rookies to fill the rotation: John Ely, who starts Thursday night, and Carlos Monasterios. The starters' combined earned-run average is 4.56, compared with 2.59 for the division rival San Francisco Giants.
-- Slugger Manny Ramirez, shortstop Rafael Furcal and reliever Jeff Weaver also remain out of the lineup because of injuries, although Ramirez — who was batting .415 when he was sidelined — and Weaver are expected to rejoin the club by week's end.
-- The bullpen continues to raise questions — witness George Sherrill's inability to mop up in the ninth inning Sunday when the Dodgers had a 9-1 lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates — and its combined 4.68 ERA is 11th in the league. But there have been positive signs. Ronald Belisario appears to be regaining his strong form and Ramon Ortiz threw three scoreless innings Saturday.
-- Although the team's batting average is a league-leading .280, doubts remain about the offense. It's been 11 games since Kemp drove in a run, pinch-hitter Garret Anderson is batting .119 and Russell Martin has only five RBIs.
Still, the Dodgers look much better than they did a week ago, and 26 of their next 38 games are at Dodger Stadium.
"We're feeling a lot better about ourselves right now," Torre said. "It's a real quiet confidence. Hopefully, we'll start off Tuesday the same way."
After initially being among the league leaders in errors, the Dodgers have played error-free baseball for the last five games. Ethier and James Loney are hot again after Dodgers bats largely went quiet when Ramirez went on the disabled list. And Kuroda has been stout, giving up only one run in the Dodgers' win Sunday.
The Dodgers' poor start not only led Colletti to publicly voice his displeasure with the whole team, which included criticizing Kemp's defense, it sparked widespread hand-wringing in the media and the Dodgers blogosphere about who or what was to blame.
Some of the topics that came under scrutiny were the pending divorce between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, a drop in the Dodgers' payroll and Colletti's off-season moves, which included losing pitcher Randy Wolf and second baseman Orlando Hudson without getting a proven pitching ace.
Was the uproar excessive given that it was still early in the season?
"I don't think anything was over-said or overstated," Ethier said. "Joe's taught us that April is one of the most important times to get out to a good start. You have a lot of catch-up [to do] if you have a long April, a tough April."
And third base coach Larry Bowa, never one to mince words, said there was no discounting how poorly the Dodgers started or the work they still face, including developing a more aggressive attitude.
Leaning back in a chair against the wall just outside the Dodgers' clubhouse, and wearing a USC version of the Dodgers' "LA" cap handed out on a fan-giveaway night, the former All-Star shortstop known for his fiery play said there is a bigger problem facing the team.
"These guys work hard," he said, "but I think they get discouraged very easily.
"We've got some people that feel sorry for themselves — 'Woe is me, everybody's against me, I hit a line drive but right at someone,' " he said, without naming names. "We have some people who are still not mature enough to fight, scrap, claw. This game will not allow you to feel sorry for yourself.
"They're good players," Bowa said, adding with some optimism, "I've got to see some fight and determination, and I know it's there."
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