ATLANTA - Chad Billingsley, who turns 31 in July, was as excited as a 20-year-old rookie on the eve of his first start of the season. Billingsley was 25 months and two elbow surgeries removed from his most recent major league game.
About an hour before he took the mound at Turner Field, Billingsley’s heart began pounding pretty good on Tuesday night. He rode the adrenaline in getting the first big league batter he faced since 2013 to ground out, and then used it again when he dialed up 93-MPH on his seventh pitch of the night.
But after his first few pitches, Billingsley’s big league return wasn’t exactly greeted with Southern hospitality from the Atlanta Braves.
Freddie Freeman, the third batter Billingsley faced, ripped a two-run home run and Kelly Johnson added a three-run shot later in the game as the Braves battered the Phillies and their veteran righthander in a 9-0 defeat.
Billingsley was charged with five earned runs on eight hits in five innings. He struck out two and walked one.
"Definitely not the way I envisioned it going but a couple of mistakes and I paid for it," said Billingsley, whose biggest accomplishment Tuesday was imply getting back on a big league mound. "It’s part of being back out there again. But my arm feels good and I’m just going to keep getting better every time out there, feeling more comfortable. I'm looking forward to it."
Billingsley, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Phillies in January after spending his first 8 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was far from the only culprit in the Phillies (10-18) latest defeat.
A reshuffled Phillies lineup - slumping Chase Utley was moved to the bench, Odubel Herrera slotted in the sixth spot and Freddy Galvis moved up to second -managed a grand total of three hits on Tuesday night. One night removed from a season-high 14 hits on Monday, when five different players had at least two hits, the Phillies were four outs away from recording a season-low in hits before Grady Sizemore’s eighth inning single.
Shelby Miller, whom the Braves acquired this winter from St. Louis in the Jason Heyward trade, went the distance for the third shutout of his career. Miller needed only 99 pitches to dispatch of the Phillies in nine innings.
"He was making good pitches," said Galvis, who was hitless for just the ninth time in 25 starts this season. "He was hitting the corners good. His breaking ball was good, his changeup, too. It was a good day for him."
In the game’s first four innings, Miller retired 11 of the first 12 hitters he faced. The only batter to reach, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, did so by way of a bunt single.
After Ryan Howard led off the fifth with a double, Miller didn’t allow another hit until Sizemore’s two-out single in the eighth. Miller allowed three hits while striking out eight and walking one batter, lowering his ERA to 1.66, fourth best in the National League.
The Phillies offense, which has scored two runs or fewer in 14 of 28 games this year, had five base runners all night and only one of them ever advanced beyond first base. The result was their fourth shutout in 28 games this season.
"It’s almost a tip of the hat to the pitcher today," Sandberg said. "We didn’t put any pressure on him or have any threats. We actually kind of got behind the eight-ball ourselves early on. I thought Billingsley showed good stuff. I think he pitched better than the results."
After surrendering the first-inning home run to Freeman - "I was just trying to go fastball up and in and it stayed down and in on him" - Billingsley settled in and retired seven of the next eight batters. In the fourth, Freeman and A.J. Pierzynski led off with back-to-back singles.
Billingsley tried to pave a way out of the inning when Jonny Gomes followed with a ground ball to third base. But Cody Asche couldn’t handle it, and a potential ground ball double play instead gave Atlanta a 3-0 lead.
"He just kind of got in between it I guess," Sandberg said.
The next batter doubled the Braves lead: Kelly Johnson took a 93-MPH fastball from Billingsley and deposited it over the center field wall.
"It was a 3-2 count, I didn't want to walk him," Billingsley said. "Just wanted to go after him, be aggressive with a fastball and try to throw it on the outer part of the plate."
"Turn one more double play and that’s two runs off - it’s a closer game and it’s a whole different feel to the game, I think," Sandberg said. "But it’s also an outing that he can build on. I think he got some things behind him as far as how he felt. His velocity was pretty good and he showed some good curveballs and changeups."
After Billingsley exited, another pitcher made his 2015 debut. Elvis Araujo, summoned to the big leagues for the first time this weekend, struck out two of the five batters he faced.
The 6-6, Venezuelan lefthander dialed up a 95-MPH to strike out Nick Markakis to end a scoreless sixth inning.