Right now, they are all producing, and Juan Pierre (11-game hitting streak) has elevated his game as well, giving Little four players for three outfield positions.
But the skipper is finding playing time for them all.
Pierre starts daily in center. Gonzalez mans left field most days, except against an occasional left-hander. Ethier gets more starts in right field than Kemp, and when Little wants to protect a lead late in the game, he has Ethier take over for Gonzalez in left and puts Kemp in right.
"We all pretty much get in each game," said Ethier. "Guys here accept their roles, they don't fret or fuss about their playing time."
Crediting the open approach of new hitting coach Bill Mueller, Ethier has been on a tear. Since Mueller took over for Eddie Murray in June, Ethier's average has climbed from .261 to .301, his on-base percentage from .311 to .369 and his slugging percentage from .402 to .459. He's playing the way he did last year, until he tried to cover up a shoulder injury and his bat went into a deep-freeze.
Now Ethier talks about "the writing on the wall," his code for the fact that, sooner or later, veterans like Gonzalez and Jeff Kent will step aside. Gonzalez, for one, can't slug 57 homers the way he did in 2001, but he hit one when it mattered on Wednesday. So did Ethier. When Gonzalez was with the D-backs, Ethier was an ASU Sun Devil. They followed each other's career, Ethier trying to be a big-leaguer like Gonzalez, Gonzo remembering what it was like to be a big man on campus like Ethier.
"I saw him play in college, and he's still developing and learning," Gonzalez said of Ethier. "What makes it so nice here is that you mix in the younger players with the older guys. When I came up with Houston, we didn't have any veterans. These guys are thrown into a team that is built to win. They can help a club win a pennant, and five or six years down the road, in their minds, they'll be winners."
"Luis and I talk all the time," Ethier said. "I've always tried to pattern my game after him. Jeff Kent told me last year to pick out a player and emulate him."
Gonzalez's home run in the sixth made a winner out of Rudy Seanez (6-1), who rebounded with a perfect inning after serving up back-to-back homers to Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand the night before. Ethier's three-run homer gave Billingsley a 4-3 lead, but he lost it on Burrell's RBI single in the fifth.
On the heels of Mark Hendrickson's three-plus-inning start on Tuesday, Billingsley could eat up only five innings, and he needed 113 pitches for that. It was the most pitches he'd thrown in a game since high school.
"My fastball just wasn't there today," said Billingsley, who has inherited the third-starter job. "I couldn't find my release point from the get-go. The last couple innings, I was pitching backward, relying on my offspeed stuff."
To protect the narrow lead, Little followed Seanez with the customary back end of his bullpen -- Joe Beimel, Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito. It was the fifth appearance in the last six days for both Beimel and Broxton, while Saito notched his 25th save, although not without a scare.
With one out in the ninth, pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs singled. With Jimmy Rollins batting and pinch-runner Michael Bourn breaking for second, catcher Russell Martin called for a pitch-out, but Saito threw a slider over the plate. Umpire Mark Wegner called it a strike, but nobody was there to catch the pitch because Martin had jumped out expecting the a pitch-out. The ball struck Wegner on the right knee and caromed to the backstop. But Saito retired Rollins on a fly ball and Shane Victorino on a grounder to end the game.