CINCINNATI – The Dodgers aren't yet at a crisis point in their season. But Chad Billingsley has arrived at a critical moment in his career.
The pitching rubber can be a lonely place. And right now, the former All-Star looks lost.
Sometime during Billingsley's latest woeful performance, the postseason hopes of the 2010 Dodgers ceased to be the primary concern. This is now a salvage effort for a not-long-ago stud pitcher, someone who stepped onto the mound in St. Louis after President Obama (and Tim Lincecum) at last year's Midsummer Classic.
Billingsley lasted only three innings in Tuesday's 11-9 loss to the Reds. And this was the damage: seven hits, seven runs, four earned.
The three unearned runs came courtesy of a throwing error by - you guessed it - the Los Angeles starting pitcher.
A late rally by the Dodgers enabled Billingsley to spit the hook, before the Reds beat the bullpen. But let's not fixate on the result of one game. The far more important statistic is 7.07.
That would be the right-hander's ERA.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre has seen pretty much everything in 45 years of professional baseball. But even he can't be too sure about what to do with Billingsley now.
Torre did say that the 25-year-old will make his next start. Beyond that? Your guess is as good as mine, his or anyone else's.
Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Billingsley "is not the first pitcher to go through a couple bad outings, and he won't be the last." But it's more than Billingsley being 4-7 with a 5.51 ERA since last year's All-Star Game.
His struggles would not be so confounding if he had articulated a clear plan for improvement during his remarks after Tuesday's game. But he didn't.
If anything, his comments reinforced how distant he is from the pitcher he was not long ago.
Torre said his starter "threw a lot of balls in the middle of the plate." But Billingsley disagreed, saying he didn't believe pitch location was a problem.
Hmm. I'm going to side with the manager on this one.
Billingsley maintained that his confidence is "not an issue." His arm, his delivery, his mechanics - all fine, he said.
He has the "same stuff" that made him an All-Star less than 12 months ago.
"Everything felt good today," he insisted. "They hit some good pitches. I wasn't walking guys. ... As far as everything I wanted to work on, I felt like I accomplished it."
He also said this:
"I was throwing quality pitches."
I don't think that's how his manager saw it.
"Wasn't very good," Torre said. "You saw the results. ... It looked like everything he was trying to do, the ball wound up in the middle of the plate.
"He has too good of stuff to get cuffed around like he was tonight."
I felt badly for Billingsley. He was pitching a little more than three hours away from his hometown of Defiance, Ohio, where he was a revered high school pitching star. I'm not sure if that added to the sting of the outing, but it probably didn't help.
Billingsley, who is soft-spoken even on his most outgoing days, did a lot of shrugging during his postgame interview.
He offered answers, but they weren't Answers. The Dodgers have to hope he finds them soon.
"Chad is a great pitcher - an All-Star pitcher," said center fielder Matt Kemp, who is off to a sensational start. "He pitched good last year. I have faith in him. We all believe in him. We know he's going to get the job done. He's going to bounce back. He's going to be all right."
The alternative would be devastating to the Dodgers. The options at Triple-A - Josh Lindblom, Scott Elbert and James McDonald - aren't very appealing now. Lindblom and Elbert are off to slow starts. McDonald had a terrible spring after the team gave him a chance to make the big-league rotation.
If the Dodgers can't fix Billingsley, the ramifications will be felt for years to come. This is a former first-round pick who had 16 victories - and a postseason win over the Cubs - in 2008. He was 24 at the time. By now, he was supposed to be an ace on the order of Chris Carpenter or Dan Haren.
But the opposite is happening.
When I asked Honeycutt to describe the main difference between the Billingsley of last April, May and June and the Billingsley of today, he paused for a few moments before answering.
"Things may go (badly) for a little while - an inning, or a couple batters - but he's always the type that would battle through somehow," he said. "That's what I want to see."
Whether that happens will tell us a lot about how good the Dodgers will be this year ... and next year ... and the year after that ... and the year after that ...