The Los Angeles Dodgers are off to their best start since 1999. One of the reasons is a new and improved Chad Billingsley.
Another is Juan Rivera, whose bat manager Don Mattingly will be able to enjoy in the middle of his lineup for a full season this time around to complement Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.
Billingsley pitches six sharp innings, Ethier hit an RBI single for his second go-ahead hit in two days and Rivera had a pair of RBI singles among his three hits, leading the Dodgers to a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night.
Billingsley (2-0) allowed five hits - including a home run by Clint Barmes - struck out four and walked none to help the Dodgers improve to 5-1.
The 27-year-old right-hander, in the second year of a four-year contract that will pay him more than $41 million, pitched 8 1-3 innings of three-hit ball and struck out 11 last Friday in a 6-0 win at San Diego.
''He's going out there and pitching,'' Ethier said. ''He really trusts his stuff. He's pounding the strike zone and making guys miss. And when he gets in a jam, he figures out a way to get out of it - either with a big double-play ball or by forcing contact with a guy and coming out on top. It's nice to play defense behind him because there's not too many balls hit to you.''
Billingsley is 6-1 lifetime against Pittsburgh with a 3.83 ERA. Pirates catcher Rod Barajas, who was a teammate of Billingsley's the previous two seasons, has a feeling that this could be a breakout year for his ex-batterymate.
''I think he just needs to be aggressive. If he works in the strike zone and makes those hitters swing the bat, I think he'll be fine,'' Barajas said. ''A lot of times last year he'd walk some guys, then get behind in the count and have to come in with the fastball. But it he stays aggressive, throws strikes and pounds that zone, he's going to be good enough to dominate.''
Matt Guerrier and Kenley Jansen each pitched a scoreless inning and Javy Guerra worked a perfect ninth for his fourth straight save.
Rivera singled home Mark Ellis in the third and Dee Gordon in the seventh.
''Having Rivera there going back-and-forth in that four and five spot gives us the best look every day and adds a little more thump in big RBI situations,'' Ethier said.
Erik Bedard (0-2) gave up two runs and eight hits in five-plus innings and struck out three. The Canadian-born left-hander, looking for his first NL victory, was coming off a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay last Thursday at Pittsburgh.
''I thought he did well. He mixed up his pitches and gave up some tough hits, but he was able to work his way out of it most of the time,'' Barajas said. ''That's what you like about him. He competes and he never gives in. He believes in himself and that makes it easier for me to call the game, because I know I can put down whatever signs and he's comfortable throwing it. The only thing we didn't really have working for us tonight was the changeup. He never seemed to get a feel for it.''
The Dodgers opened the sixth with singles by Kemp and Rivera, whose slow bouncer to the right of the mound deflected off Bedard's glove as he tried to backhand it. Ethier - who hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning of Tuesday's home opener - lined a 3-1 pitch the other way to left field, scoring Kemp and giving the Dodgers a 2-1 lead.
''I kind of gave away an at-bat my second time up when I was in an RBI situation and didn't make the most of it,'' Ethier said. ''So I just tried to make it simple my next time up. Fortunately, I worked myself into a good hitter's count, used my hands and got a good pitch over the middle of the plate.''
James Loney pinch hit for Billingsley later in the sixth with the bases loaded against Tony Watson and went 0 for 2, making him hitless in his first 16 at-bats - the longest season-opening drought of his seven-year career. In 2008, he hit safely in his first 15 games.
NOTES: Nancy Bea Hefley, who succeeded Helen Dell as Dodger Stadium's organist in 1988, will get her first opportunity to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before Saturday night's game against San Diego. ... Clayton Kershaw was presented with his Cy Young Award on the field before the game by former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, who won it in 1981 as a rookie. ... The security people on the field were wearing batting helmets during batting practice - a new directive instituted by Major League Baseball for all ballparks.