LOS ANGELES – It seems long ago, back when this National League Championship Series was forming its identity as a battle to be contested somewhere between the near side of the plate, Russell Martin's Adam's apple and Shane Victorino's sense of fair play.
This was the bottom of the second inning of Game 2 at Citizens Bank Park. Two were out. The bases were empty.
It was here the series began to lean toward the Philadelphia Phillies, and the moment Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley will be pitching away from when he takes the ball Wednesday night for Game 5, an elimination affair for the Dodgers, the first of three, if they get that far.
He turned 24 in mid-summer, when he was on his way to 16 wins and accumulating observations he'd taken the job of staff ace away from Derek Lowe. He had that hard fastball and slick slider, and he'd convinced himself in his second full season that contact and balls in play did not always translate to failure.
Eight days earlier, he'd pitched into the seventh inning against the Cubs, in effect ending another baseball season on the North Side.
His resume was broadening and at a good time for the Dodgers, whose management had lost faith in Brad Penny and was losing hope that Lowe, who will be a free agent, would return to L.A. The pitching staff needs rebuilding, and a young (and reasonably paid) Billingsley was developing into a front-end starter.
All of which took Billingsley to the mound against the Phillies, holding a 1-0 lead, all that noise around him, all those white towels fluttering. Brett Myers, the Phillies' starter, had pushed Martin off the plate with a couple of fastballs in the first inning and had thrown a fastball across Manny Ramirez's scapulas just after that.
A few minutes later, granted the ideal scenario – Greg Dobbs at the plate, light-hitting Carlos Ruiz on deck – to stand up for teammates who clearly believed they needed to be stood up for, Billingsley either wouldn't or couldn't. It's touchy. The rules change. In October, you win the stinkin' game first and worry about Manny Ramirez's standards of sportsmanship next.
Then, to make it all worse, Billingsley barely got out of the second inning, then was clobbered again in the third. He lost and, come to find out, his teammates believed he'd wilted under the unspoken code to settle the score. A Dodgers player said Billingsley was chastised by at least one teammate somewhere between Philadelphia and Los Angeles that night. Billingsley's hardball manhood was challenged again two days later, this time publicly, when another starter – Hiroki Kuroda – felt compelled to crop-dust Victorino.
It's all petty. It's all childish. But it's real in those clubhouses, and you can believe Billingsley, for better or worse, will carry much of these past four days to the mound with him Wednesday.
Never asked directly about the burden in the aftermath of the Phillies' Game 4 win here Monday night, Billingsley shrugged and perhaps alluded to it when he said, "Tomorrow I'm going to relax and just kind of get away from it and just clear my head a little bit. And when I wake up in the morning on Wednesday, start preparing."
He did grant, "It's pretty much do or die."
They all are from here for the Dodgers, however many there are. They get Phillies ace Cole Hamels in Game 5, so they start there, against a guy they scored two runs off in seven innings of Game 1. And they'll stand behind a young man whose courage – or competitiveness, or team responsibility, or something – they were questioning just a day or two ago. Maybe Billingsley repairs some of that, continues his journey to the top of the rotation. Maybe this is going to take a while. In the aftermath of that Game 2 disaster, he rued his pitch selection, implying his catcher – Martin – might not have helped as much as he should have. And a few times, he appeared near tears.
"He's sensitive," Joe Torre said Tuesday afternoon. "Yet he's very aggressive and sure of himself. And I think he was mad at himself for sort of being in between in that start. I think I mentioned it more than once, Andy Pettitte, who loves being in the shadow of somebody else, and the first time I watched Andy prepare for a game I just happened to be in the training room and he's in there staring at the wall and I said, ‘Uh-oh, we have no chance here.' And then he goes out on the mound and you just watch this guy deal with it. And I've seen that in Chad.
"He's pitched a lot of important games this year. I think the most important thing, and hopefully he can get himself in that frame of mind, is that you remind yourself this is still a baseball game and you can only win one game right now and that's the game you're pitching. That's the tough part about playing in this postseason is to make sure you keep it as a baseball game and let the panic come from the manager and not from you."
If it sounds like a lot is at stake for Billingsley, that's because there is. He has to win the game. He has to win his teammates. Maybe one leads to the other.