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Padres' turnaround begins with pitching, timely hitting

Since 5-15 start, Friars are 30-19 and sit two games back in division @RichardJustice

SAN DIEGO -- Looking back to April when the Padres were 5-15, it's interesting to see how they reacted then. If you're looking for an explanation for their 30-19 turnaround, maybe it begins there.

First, there's manager Buddy Black, one of the best in the business.

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"With Buddy, there are no excuses, no pouting," Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said Sunday after watching his team finish a three-game sweep of the D-backs with a 4-1 victory at Petco Park. "Our team plays hard every day."

Part of that goes back to Black using his entire roster, which means guys show up at the ballpark knowing there's a chance they'll be put in position to win a game.

"Our players are close," Byrnes said. "They focus and play hard. It's a good group."

Anyway, since that 5-15 start, the Padres have been one of baseball's hottest teams and have cut their deficit in the National League West from eight games to two. They've won six straight as they head to San Francisco to play the defending champions three games beginning Monday.

"There's a lot of parity around the league," Byrnes said. "Every night, we're in a close game, and we're finding a way to win."

Now about 5-15.

Third baseman Chase Headley was injured. Left fielder Carlos Quentin got off to a slow start. Catcher Yasmani Grandal was serving a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance enhancing drugs.

And there was the starting pitching. No need to name names here because they all had a tough time of it. It was a perfect storm, and also a bad bounce or two. So a season that began with optimism could have ended almost before it began. Only thing is, the Padres went through something like this last season.

They were 27-49 before finishing 49-37. The Padres never stopped plugging along when they were 22 games under .500, so they weren't about to quit at 5-15 in 2013.

"I think this year there was confidence the group could win," Byrnes said. "It was more frustration than panic."

And then it all changed.

There were no team meetings, no dramatic speeches, none of that stuff. All the Padres did was keep playing hard. Suddenly, the pitching turned around. In Jason Marquis, Eric Stults and Andrew Cashner, they have three first-rate starters. Since 5-15, the Padres are 23-6 in their starts.

And the offense has come from various places. Backup first baseman Kyle Blanks broke up a 1-1 tie with a three-run, eighth-inning home run to beat the D-backs on Sunday.

A day earlier, it had been a three-run home run by Grandal. Even with Headley off to a slow start, the Padres have increased their offense from 4.0 runs per game to 4.6 since April.

One of the things the Padres were excited about on Opening Day was the depth of talented young pitching in their system. As Byrnes watched it get closer and closer to the big leagues, he felt good about the future.

Turns out, some of his best moves are the ones that didn't excite many people. For instance, he claimed Stults off waivers from the White Sox last season.

Now, Stults is one of several guys on which Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley has worked his magic. Stults has allowed five earned runs in his last four starts and pitched the third complete game of his career Saturday. He did it by mixing a 90-mph fastball with a 65-mph curveball and aggressively throwing strikes.

"He pitches. He truly pitches," Black said. "He keeps hitters off balance. At this point in his career, he's very comfortable with what he throws and what he does to get outs. It's great to watch."

Likewise, Marquis conducts the graduate school of pitching every fifth day. At 34, his 14th big league season surely has been one of his most rewarding. Only Adam Wainwright has more than his nine victories.

As for Cashner, he's 26 now and finally able to harness the dazzling stuff that made him a first-round Draft pick of the Cubs five years ago. He's turning out to be exactly what Byrnes hoped he'd be when he surrendered first baseman Anthony Rizzo to get him.

In a division that seems wide open, the Padres have breathed life into their season. As Byrnes said, they aren't a perfect team, but none of the other NL West teams are, either.

"We're in the middle of June and in the race," Byrnes said. "I do think we're competitive."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

San Diego Padres, Andrew Cashner, Yasmani Grandal, Chase Headley, Jason Marquis, Carlos Quentin, Eric Stults