To a man, Black will be missed by Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Upton was convinced the Padres were on the verge of busting out with one of those 15-5 streaks that would have had them right in the thick of the National League West race with the Dodgers and Giants.
It didn't even dampen Upton's spirits when the Dodgers' Joc Pederson crashed into the center-field wall on Sunday at Petco Park to steal what would have been his series-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning.
If not for Pederson's Herculean effort and the Dodgers prevailing in 12 innings, Upton would have had game-deciding blows on consecutive days -- and the Padres would have been on a roll, just four games off L.A.'s division lead.
"We're the kind of club that's going to have that good run and be in the middle of the division race by the end of the season," Upton said. "It could happen any time."
If it does, it will come with a new occupant of the manager's chair. Bud Black, in his ninth season as the classy leader of the Padres, was dismissed on Monday by general manager A.J. Preller. Dave Roberts, Black's bench coach, is the interim manager, for now.
Preller said it wasn't "any one thing or play" that tipped the scales against Black. It was an inconsistent level of play, he maintained, for nine weeks that brought the Buddy system to a close.
It is not unreasonable to wonder if the decision would have been made if Pederson hadn't made the catch of the year. In the afterglow of an emotion-charged victory against the division leader that would have given the Padres their fourth win with two draws in the past six series, could they have fired the skipper without a public outcry?
"Shocked" when he heard the news on Monday, Upton said: "If we win the series against the Dodgers, there wouldn't have been as much grounds to do it. If Joc doesn't make that play, things may be different. But we lost, and the door was left open. We didn't close it."
An influx of new players, Upton submitted, created a challenge of melding it all together for Black.
"We had to change the culture in the clubhouse, to where guys expect to win," Upton said. "We knew what Buddy was up against. He had everybody's ear and was a good guy to play for. But we knew that if we didn't perform on the field, there was a chance he would be in this position."
Upton, who came to the Padres from the Braves in a winter swap, is eligible for free agency after the season if he's not signed to an extension. Catcher Derek Norris, ace James Shields and closer Craig Kimbrel also have produced, with the promise of good things to come.
Among the new Padres, former Dodgers star Matt Kemp has struggled to generate power but has driven in 33 runs. The defense overall has been spotty behind a rotation and bullpen that have been inconsistent.
If Kemp pulls a repeat of his final season with the Dodgers and goes on a second-half hitting spree, the Dodgers and Giants almost certainly will have some company in a potentially great race.
"We're all shocked," Kemp said. "I'm definitely surprised by the timing. We've played pretty good baseball the last two or three weeks. A lot of us are disappointed in the way we've played this year, but we can all get better.
"I guess the front office decided to go in a different direction. I'm not quite sure what it is. We'll see."
Black's right-hand man and buddy, Roberts called it a "very emotional day -- I've never been in this situation before."
He said he'd like to manage, even though these circumstances are less than ideal.
Preller said he would look inside the organization for an interim manager. Along with Roberts, Pat Murphy, the Padres' Triple-A manager at El Paso, is viewed as a candidate to succeed Black.
The investments in high-end talent elevated expectations to new levels in San Diego. Preller and a new management team clearly had high expectations and concluded that Black -- the 2010 NL Manager of the Year Award winner -- wasn't the right man to make it happen down the road.
Those close to Black would disagree. In that camp is Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who worked with Black and Ron Roenicke -- fired this season as Brewers manager -- on Mike Scioscia's staff with the 2002 World Series champion Angels.
"I feel awful," Maddon said when asked about Black. "He's a really good friend. I feel really badly about it. ... He's a great guy and does a great job."
Shields, "disappointed" in the news, said, "Buddy's a great manager. We understand it's part of the business, but we're going to miss him over here."
Austin Hedges, a brilliant young catcher backing up Norris, agrees with Upton that a big Padres run is coming.
"It's a very big test for our team, to see what we're made of," Hedges said. "We've got the guys who can get it done and succeed. This team's got a great chemistry, and Buddy's a big reason for that.
"We've been playing well, but a lot of things haven't gone our way. We easily could have won all three games in that series with the Dodgers. There are some things you can't control.
"Once we take off," Hedges added, "the rest of the league is going to see something."
Bud Black, who paved the way, will view it from a distance.