Ethier, who was a late scratch before the game after complaining of a sick stomach, hit a two-run, pinch-hit single into center field during the seventh to lead the Dodgers to a 2-0 victory in front of 38,428 at PETCO Park.
The Dodgers also continued their mastery over the Padres -- albeit a small sample size - improving to 5-1 against San Diego in 2010 while raising their record against their National League West foes to 25-8 with plenty of meetings ahead.
The hit by Ethier was the lone blight on what was otherwise one of the best performances this season by Padres pitcher Jon Garland (9-7), who allowed five hits and two walks to go with five strikeouts.
The decision to let Garland pitch to Ethier in that inning certainly wasn't made lightly, not after Blake DeWitt and Garret Anderson reached on two-out singles.
After a meeting on the mound, Garland and catcher Yorvit Torrealba talked briefly. A decision was made to walk Russell Martin to load the bases and force the Dodgers (54-46) into a decision they didn't want to make: Let Billingsley, who like Garland, had a shutout at that point, go ahead and hit or choose to take him out for a pinch-hitter and potentially give the Padres (58-40) an advantage if Garland was to wiggle out of the jam.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre called upon Ethier, who under normal circumstances would have been in the lineup. With a left-handed reliever, Joe Thatcher, up in the bullpen, the Padres opted to stick with Garland.
"Billingsley is pitching great, and he and Jon are in a duel. ... We forced them to make a move," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Jon had to get one out. You take a calculated risk that Jon can get that out."
Ethier got a pitch down in the strike zone and bounced it up the middle to score two.
"If he grounds out, then it's a good pitch," Garland said. "He got a hit, so in my mind it's a bad pitch."
It was one of the few bad pitches that Garland threw, as he nearly matched Billingsley (9-5) pitch for pitch. Billingsley allowed three hits over six innings, though he managed to do the one thing Garland couldn't -- pitch his way out of a monumental mess.
Adrian Gonzalez punched a single to left to start the fourth inning and advanced to second on Chase Headley's single into center field. Torrealba then reached on an infield single to load the bases for the Nos. 6-7-8 hitters.
Billingsley got Will Venable to bounce a ball to DeWitt at second base, who went home to get Gonzalez, who was tagged out after a high throw.
"I just didn't get it done," Venable said. "We're a team that doesn't get those chances often, and I think the thing that we do well is come through in those situations, and I didn't get it done this time."
Billingsley then got Tony Gwynn to pop out to shortstop Rafael Furcal in short center field. He then got Everth Cabrera looking at a called third strike on a curveball that ended the inning and the scoring opportunity.
"He threw some fastballs with a little more velocity in that inning," Black said. "The curveball today had good rotation. He's attacking hitters. Today he was on."
The same could be said for Garland.
At one point between the second and fifth innings, Garland retired 10 consecutive hitters. Even though he uncharacteristically allowed more fly balls (eight) than ground balls (six), it hardly mattered, as Garland worked fast and was efficient with his pitches.
Garland threw nine pitches to get three outs in the fifth inning. He was tested in the sixth, though, as Martin opened the inning with a single to right field. Billingsley then dropped a sacrifice bunt that ended up in Gonzalez's hands.
But only briefly, as Gonzalez, a two-time Gold Glove winner, fumbled the ball while he stole a quick glance at Martin running to second base. By the time Gonzalez grabbed the ball again, Billingsley was safe at first base.
Hardly frazzled, Garland got leadoff hitter Furcal to line out to left field for the first out. He then fell behind Xavier Paul, 3-1, before getting him to swing through a changeup. Garland then got Matt Kemp to swing and miss on a slider to end the inning.
"He was stressed and he made some pitches to Furcal to keep the runners from advancing ... Jon made pitches all night. He was crisp," Black said.
As for the Dodgers, a team the Padres will see plenty of over the next nine game games -- six more times, in fact, including a four-game set in Los Angeles next week -- San Diego second baseman Jerry Hairston said games like these, tight, close games, could wind up being the norm.
"You've got to expect that, they're a good ballclub," Hairston said. "They're the defending National League West champs, so you've got to go through them one way or the other. We expect tough games. We didn't swing the bats particularly well tonight, but a lot has to do with Chad, so you have to give them credit and move on."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.