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Is ultimate greatness for Billingsley a mental game?

February 27, 2010 |  7:47 am
Billingsley Mental toughness.

There’s a term you’d think would make Chad Billingsley cringe. Like it’s the big hole in his resume, the void still to be filled.

They praise his stuff. Exalt his curve. Appreciate his power. And then too often, question if he is mentally tough enough to put it all together and achieve greatness.

To become an ace. A stopper the Dodgers’ rotation currently lacks.

He has the stuff, but can he bring the attitude? Be unflinching in adversity? Not only rise to the challenge, but welcome it. Snare at it.

I mentioned the mental toughness question to Billingsley, and he said, "What do you mean?"

Like it was a foreign concept. So I explained, tactfully as I could.

"I don’t think it’s any issue or problem," Billingsley said. "Every time I step out on the mound, I’m doing whatever’s possible to win a baseball game.’’
This are three reasons why, despite his noticeable success the past four seasons, some are concerned he’s a tad too fragile mentally to ever achieve his full potential:

He has an easygoing demeanor and is as nice a person as you would hope to know; he failed to return inside pitches in the National League Championship Series against the Phillies two years ago; and after starting last season so well before the All-Star break (9-4, 3.38 ERA), he pitched poorly in the second half (3-7, 5.20 ERA).

So is it possible he’s too timid to be great? Can he find his inner Don Drysdale? Does he have the drive to reach the next level?

Billingsley said he has lofty goals and the will to achieve them.

"I want to win a Cy Young, or however many I can," he said. "Win a World Series. The Hall of Fame. And have a healthy career. I want to be the best I can in this career. You want to walk away from the game knowing you did everything you could to be the best you could be.

"I’ve had a pretty solid couple of years, but I plan to do better. Win 20 games, pitch 200 innings. I have goals I want to achieve.’’

Billingsley said he knows there are mini-steps to take along the way, but is confident he’s headed in the right direction.

He’s buoyed by a healthy offseason. Last year he fractured his ankle after slipping on ice back home in Pennsylvania in November.

"This offseason I was able to keep my routine as far as working out and throwing,’’ he said. "I was able to come in shape.

"I didn’t really get after it last year until January. This past year, I started in November.’’

The Dodgers don’t have an ace in their rotation they can count on every five days, or more importantly, to make a pair of big starts in a postseason series.

They failed to acquire that starter in the offseason, and are now hoping either Clayton Kershaw, 22, or Billingsley, 25, can evolve into that pitcher.

Billingsley has certainly shown that ability for long stretches. Now many will watch, waiting for him to prove he has the mental toughness to take it to the next level.

-- Steve Dilbeck, in Phoenix

Photo: Chad Billingsley. Credit: Danny Moloshok / Associated Press