One rainy April evening made fans of Defiance native Chad Billingsley wait a little longer for the breakout season they hoped he would have in 2008.
The wait appears to be over.
Billingsley, the No. 3 starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is beginning to deliver on the massive potential he showed as a first-round draft pick in 2003. In his second full year in the major leagues, Billingsley has won four of his last six starts and has an earned-run average in the top 25 in the National League at 3.68. He starts against the New York Mets today at Shea Stadium.
"Even from as far back as spring training you start looking at the adjustments you have to make," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "Chad's been making those and taking them into the ball game."
When the season started, Billingsley discovered adjustments were needed quickly. His first start of 2008 was scheduled for April 2, but he was scratched at the last minute because of impending heavy rain. Billingsley ended up going in to pitch in the fifth inning, only for the game to be delayed soon after.
Billingsley made one more relief appearance a few days later before taking his regular turn in the rotation, nine days after the season started. He took losses in his first four starts.
"We were trying to beat the weather and outsmart Mother Nature," Billingsley said. "That threw my routine off a little bit. It took me a little bit longer."
Beginning when he got his first win of the season on April 30, the 23-year-old Billingsley has lowered his ERA from 6.53 to 3.68, with a 4-6 record. He has a career 3.53 ERA.
"From the first part of the season to now, I haven't really changed a whole lot," Billingsley said. "The only thing I've concentrated on, is if there are runners on first and third, or the bases are loaded, just to change my thought process a little bit. Not think so much about throwing 97 miles per hour, instead throw a 92 miles per hour quality pitch. I'm trusting all my pitches."
Billingsley has gotten this far partly by trusting in himself. Tom Held, Defiance High School's baseball coach, remembers being surprised at everything that Billingsley expected from his career when he was coaching him. But so far the 6-foot-1, 245-pound right-hander has not been wrong.
"It's hard to ever predict a high school kid pitching in the big leagues," Held said. "He was a kid that always believed he was going to pitch in the big leagues. A lot of kids say it or dream it, he literally believed it.
"He thought he was going to be a first-round draft pick. After his first year he said he would be in the big leagues by the time he's 21. I said, 'It doesn't always work that way, Chad.' He was right.
"He believed he could get Barry Bonds out. Not in a cocky way or confident way, he really believes."
A power pitcher, Billingsley has always been armed with a heater and a 12-6 curve. Although he said his confidence isn't as high as it was the second half of last year, he thinks his stuff is better.
"My curveball has been a lot better, my fastball has been a lot better," Billingsley said. "All my pitches have been controlled. I've been throwing for strikes."
Billingsley has cut down on his walks the last two years, which Honeycutt credits to the control of his fastball.
"His fastball command has really improved," Honeycutt said. "What you have been seeing is him throwing fastballs for strikes and pitching ahead in the count these last four or five starts."
Billingsley has worked with Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell since he was drafted by the Dodgers, but it's his first year with manager Joe Torre, who came to the Dodgers after 12 years with the New York Yankees and winning the World Series four times. He felt the bar raise when Torre came.
"The things he's done as a player and as a manager are just unbelievable," Billingsley said. "He knows how to win, he knows the game very well. It's always good to have a guy like that in the clubhouse. His presence makes the team know they have to win. It's expected."
Although it threw him off to start this year, one of the best learning experiences Billingsley has had as a professional was working as a reliever the first half of 2007. After he was moved into the rotation, he had one of the lowest ERAs for a starter in the major leagues after July 1 at 3.02.
"It was a great experience to throw out of the bullpen," Billingsley said. "I learned a lot. I have the utmost respect for those guys. Pitching two, three days in a row its so hard on your body and mentally. It's tough being a reliever."
With Billingsley playing most of his games on the West Coast, it's hard for some people back home to follow him live. Held has the major league baseball TV package and watches most of his starts. Billingsley said he often has friends tell him, "It's so tough to stay awake, especially when you're going deep in the game."
Those who make the effort are rarely disappointed.
"He's proven that he can win in the big leagues," Held said.
- Maureen Fulton