Daily Distractions: Clayton Kershaw’s changing repertoire; Chad Billingsley verdict coming soon.

Clayton KershawThe Dodgers are playing the Mets in New York tonight. Clayton Kershaw is pitching.

Before you breathe that every-five-days sigh of relief that comes with seeing number 22 on the mound, consider the changes to Kershaw’s repertoire since his masterful Opening Day performance.

That day, his curveball was working so well against the San Francisco Giants, he barely needed a fastball. Kershaw threw fastballs on 52.1 percent of his pitches, a ridiculously low percentage considering he threw 94 pitches over nine innings.

In every start since, Kershaw has thrown fewer curves as a percentage of his pitches — from 19.2 percent on Opening Day to 11.3, 9.9, and finally 7.6 percent last Wednesday against the Padres. Kershaw said he didn’t have any of his breaking pitches working well that night, when he allowed five runs (three earned) in 5 ⅓ innings.

Kershaw’s fastball has gotten slightly slower, too. It averaged 93 mph on Opening Day, then 92.3, 92.8 and 92.6 mph in his last three starts, sequentially.

Is his arm about to fall off? No. But as Kershaw relies more on his fastball and slider, the danger of arguably his most dangerous pitch, the curve, is reduced. Depending on how well his entire repertoire is keeping the Mets off-balance, he might not need it.

It’s something to keep an eye on tonight.

Some bullet points for a Tuesday morning:

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Eric Stults vs. Chad Billingsley presents an intriguing Padres-Dodgers pitching matchup.

Chad Billingsley

It wasn’t that long ago that San Diego Padres left-hander Eric Stults started against his former team. On Sept. 4 of last year, Stults limited the Dodgers to seven hits and one run in six innings at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers wound up losing that game 6-3 in 11 innings when John Ely imploded (the first time) in his first major-league game of the season.

Afterward Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he’d seen enough soft-tossing left-handers for a season. “We’re kind of seeing the same guy and not making enough adjustments,” he said. Turns out that the Dodgers weren’t alone in their misery facing Stults, who went 3-1 over his final four starts of last year, including two wins over the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Stults shut out the Mets for five innings to win his only start of 2013. For a guy who was relegated to Japan after being cut by the Dodgers in 2009, it’s a nice little comeback.

Stults will be opposed by Chad Billingsley, who was officially activated from the 15-day disabled list prior to the game. Interesting to note that both pitchers broke into the majors with the Dodgers in the same year (2006). Billingsley would start 100 games over the next four seasons for the Dodgers. Stults started 24 during that same span before the teams parted ways.

Don’t forget, the game will not be on Prime Ticket tonight but you can still watch it on local cable.

Here are tonight’s full lineups:

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Dodgers option Tim Federowicz to Triple-A Albuquerque.

The Dodgers, carrying three catchers and needing to make room for right-hander Chad Billingsley, optioned backstop Tim Federowicz to Triple-A Albuquerque on Tuesday.

Federowicz went 0-for-3 with a walk in his only appearance of the season Sunday.

Federowicz hit .294 with 11 home runs and 76 RBIs in his first full Triple-A season last year. That was enough to earn a promotion to the relatively low-pressure job of a backup major-league catcher. He held the edge on the job from the end of last season to the end of spring training, until the Dodgers traded Aaron Harang for veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez on Saturday.

Hernandez will back up starter A.J. Ellis.

Billingsley is scheduled to start tomorrow against Padres left-hander Eric Stults in San Diego.

Daily Distractions: Real facts about A.J. Ellis, Ryu Hyun-Jin.

A.J. Ellis

A.J. Ellis gets a call from home plate umpire Dan Iassogna in a Sept. 11, 2012 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Associated Press)

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by friends, readers and fans is, “who are the best players to interview?” I always rattle off a list, and that list always includes A.J. Ellis. A few others, too, but Buster Olney had an A.J. Ellis anecdote on his blog today that’s worth relaying:

Over the last few weeks, I had conversations with three catchers who are known to have good working relationships with umpires — Alex Avila of the Tigers, Tampa Bay’s Jose Molina, and the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis. Avila is known to have a good eye at the plate, and he mentioned to me that umpires will ask him from time to time whether they missed pitches — when Avila is catching, or batting. And Avila’s policy is to always, always provide 100 percent honesty. So if he takes a walk on a borderline pitch and the plate umpire asks him about it later, Avila — who has an understated, genial demeanor — will tell him exactly what he thinks, even if he believes the ball four call should’ve been a strike.

Molina and Ellis agreed completely, mentioning that they have similar conversations. The bottom line, the catchers explained, is that the umpires want to be the best at what they do and they will ask, from time to time, for immediate feedback. But with Ellis, Avila and Molina, those conversations take place quietly, in the course of a day’s work, without anybody else knowing about it, and with body language and tone that convey complete respect.

There are other Ellis anecdotes out there (real ones, not Chuck Norris ones). Olney’s illustrates what those of us who cover him day-to-day have come to understand: A.J. Ellis is a rare breed.

With no game last night to reflect upon, these bullet points are about to get delightfully random:

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Chad Billingsley will start Thursday in Rancho Cucamonga.

Chad BillingsleyIt’s not every Opening Day that a Single-A baseball team gets an 80-game winner to start its first game of the season.

That will be the case Thursday, when Chad Billingsley takes the hill for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

Billingsley, one of four players on the Dodgers’ disabled list to start the season, said he hasn’t been given an innings limit for the start. That may still come, but the right-hander said he isn’t restricted in any way two weeks after he bruised the index finger on his right hand doing a bunting drill.

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Obscure MLB rule, bruised finger will dictate where Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley pitches March 28.

Updating our earlier item about Chad Billingsley‘s next start on March 28, the Dodgers haven’t determined where it will be.

It definitely won’t be in Anaheim. Manager Don Mattingly said Saturday that Hyun-Jin Ryu will start the “Freeway Series” opener against the Angels at 7 p.m.

There’s also a 6 p.m. split-squad exhibition game that night against the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes at The Epicenter. That would be the logical place for Billingsley to start, but it would cause a minor inconvenience if the Dodgers decide to put the right-hander on the 15-day disabled list with a bruised index finger when the regular season begins.

If Billingsley pitches in Rancho he wouldn’t be able to start his potential disabled list stint until March 29 because the exhibition game has a paid attendance. That’s an MLB rule. If the DL is still a possibility for him in four days, Billingsley would pitch in a game without a paid attendance, such as a simulated game at Camelback Ranch.

Billingsley wouldn’t be eligible to come off the DL until April 13 if he starts against the Quakes.

Even though he was able to pitch 4 2/3 pain-free innings Saturday, Billingsley didn’t throw a curveball because he can’t throw a curve without pain. Last year Billingsley threw curves on less than 3 percent of his pitches, but Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said that Billingsley “is going to need to have all his weapons” by the time he makes his first start of the season. Right now, that’s scheduled for April 2. If Billingsley goes on the DL, Ryu will make the start instead.

Speaking of Ryu, here are the projected Freeway Series matchups:

Thursday (in Anaheim): Ryu vs. Joe Blanton
Friday (in Los Angeles): Josh Beckett vs. Jason Vargas
Saturday (in Anaheim): Zack Greinke vs. Tommy Hanson

Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley encouraged by Triple-A start.

Chad BillingsleyHow good is Chad Billingsley without his curveball?

He was OK on Saturday afternoon in a Triple-A game against the Cleveland Indians at Camelback Ranch. Facing live hitters for the first time since he bruised the index finger on his right hand eight days ago, Billingsley threw 92 pitches in 4 2/3 innings, allowing four hits, two runs, walking four and striking out seven. He threw one wild pitch and no curves.

More importantly, Billingsley reported no discomfort after the start. Can he start against the San Francisco Giants 10 days from now?

“As long as there’s no setbacks, yeah,” Billingsley said. “I’m planning to be ready.”

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Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley to throw Saturday, confident he can make first regular season start.

Chad Billingsley

Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley confirmed that he’ll pitch in a minor-league game Saturday at Camelback Ranch.

Billingsley bruised the index finger on his pitching hand six days ago in a bunting drill but came back to throw a pain-free bullpen session Wednesday. His last Cactus League start was March 7 against the Texas Rangers. His last start of any sort came in a five-inning simulated game against minor leaguers on March 13, when Billingsley threw 78 pitches.

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Dodgers rotation scramble: Josh Beckett scratched, Chad Billingsley bruised, Zack Greinke improving.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett was scratched from his scheduled start Tuesday with the flu. Several Dodgers have been afflicted with the bug (Ted Lilly, Zack Greinke, Peter Moylan, Ramon Castro, Adrian Gonzalez) and Beckett’s doesn’t seem to be too bad. He was scheduled to throw on a back field Monday morning.

(Update: Beckett indeed threw a simulated game on the back field and reportedly passed the test with flying colors.)

In his place, Josh Wall will start against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Dodgers will likely use a combination of relievers, including some minor-leaguers, to fill out the innings behind Wall, who hasn’t pitched more than 1 ⅔ innings in a Cactus League game this spring.

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Dodgers 7, Cubs 6: Postgame thoughts.

Monday’s game, the third of spring training for the Dodgers, began at 1:06 p.m. The Dodgers’ second batter stepped into the batter’s box 18 minutes later.

That’s because the Dodgers’ first batter, Dee Gordon, led off the bottom of the first inning with a 17-pitch at-bat against Chicago Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva. (Gordon struck out looking.) In the top of the first, Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley allowed hits to the first four batters he faced and surrendered two runs. It had the makings of a long game from the outset and it was: Three hours, 25 minutes total.

The afternoon was probably more memorable if Vin Scully was narrating it — which he was, if you had a radio Monday.

Some less colorful takeaways:

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