Bud Black is a very astute baseball man. He was a deep thinker as a major-league pitcher then made his mark following his playing career working in the Indians' front office and as the Angels' pitching coach before being hired as the Padres' manager prior to the 2007 season.

Thus, Black knows that multiple statistical studies have shown that finishing strong in one season does not guarantee a team success in the next season. He also knows that how teams fare during the exhibition games of spring training rarely has a bearing on regular season performance.

However, when Black is asked if he saw what was to come from his surprising Padres at the beginning of this season, he cites how they finished last season on a good note and also wrapped up Cactus League play on a hot streak this spring. The Padres went 37-25 in their last 62 games after going 38-62 in their first 100, then ended spring training with 18 victories in their final 20 games. While Black stops short of saying those factors provided momentum for his club, he does think it helped the Padres establish confidence coming into this season.

"It set a good tone," Black said. "Our guys weren't questioning whether they could win anymore. They knew they could be competitive and even better than that."

The Padres have certainly been competitive this season, as they lead the National League West by three games over the Giants at the start of the last week of July. Their 58-39 record is best in the NL, and they've even done it on a tight budget, as their $37 million payroll to start the season was the second-lowest in the major leagues behind the Pirates ($34 million).

"We don't have the most talented team in the league and we don't have All-Stars at every position," closer Heath Bell said. "What we do have is a lot of young guys who have bought into what we're trying to do. They know we have to work hard and play hard in order to keep winning. A lot of times that counts more than people think."

Having a pitching staff like the Padres makes it easy to believe. The Padres are allowing just 3.49 runs per game, the best mark in the major leagues, and the staff is backed by a defense playing to a .709 defensive efficiency, which is first in the NL and fifth in the majors.

"The formula really isn't any secret," Black said. "We've built our club on the foundation of good pitching and then done everything we can to complement in terms of defense and speed. We ask our starters to try to give us as many innings as possible, then turn it over to our bullpen. We feel, in our situation, that philosophy gives us the best chance to win."

The Padres did not have that philosophy when they first moved from Qualcomm Stadium to Petco Park in 2004. They had a team that relied more on slugging than pitching, speed, and defense.

However, the Padres finally learned that what worked in Qualcomm wasn't going to work in Petco, where spacious fences and the marine layer that comes off the Pacific Ocean, particularly during night games, depresses offense more than any venue in the major leagues. Thus, former general manager Kevin Towers came to the conclusion that building a team around run prevention was more practical before he was fired late last season. Jed Hoyer, formerly the Red Sox' assistant GM, has decided to continue with the same philosophy as GM.

Thus, the Padres have been able to win despite first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.320) being the only regular with an TAv over .278 in an offense that ranks just 11th in the NL with an average of 4.41 runs scored per game. However, Mat Latos (4.5), Wade LeBlanc (3.1), Clayton Richard (3.0), and Jon Garland (2.4) have given the Padres a strong front four in the rotation, and Mike Adams (2.5831 WXRL), who is expected to come off the disabled list on Tuesday after being out with elbow tendinitis, has combined with Luke Gregerson (2.012) to provide an outstanding set-up duo for Bell (3.8446).

It seems one of the biggest questions facing the Padres over the final two months of the season is if they will be done in by a lack of playoff experience. The Padres have not made the postseason since 2006, and Gonzalez is one of just three holdovers from that club along with right-handers Chris Young and Tim Stauffer. Young has not pitched since straining his shoulder in his first start of the season on April 11 and might miss the rest of the season while Stauffer, who made only one start for the 2006 Padres, is a long reliever.

"It could be a factor," Black admitted. "But I think, as a coaching staff, we have to take steps to make it as small of a factor as possible. We need to communicate to our players on a daily basis how important it is to stay focused, not worry about outside factors, and compartmentalize the idea that the most important thing to do is focus on that day's game."

Added Bell, "I know there are a lot of people outside this clubhouse who are waiting for the bubble to burst but it's not. We're a good team. We're not a fluke and we're not going to collapse."

The Rays have been connected to an array of power hitters in trade rumors with the non-waiver deadline coming at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth is one of the names being floated, and Phillies special assignment scout Gordon Lakey watched the Rays' three-game series at Cleveland over the weekend. Among the others the Rays are supposedly interested in are Brewers right fielder Cory Hart and Orioles designated hitter Luke Scott.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, on one hand, would like to see the Rays, who have the second-best record in the major leagues at 59-38, add some help in their effort to catch the Yankees, who lead the American League East by three games. On the other hand, the Rays are third in the major leagues in runs scored with 5.14 a game.

"You're always looking to make yourself better," Maddon said. "Of course, if the right deal was out there to make us better, (executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman) is always looking to do that. Absolutely we would embrace that opportunity. Then again, if it weren't to happen, I think we're fine too. I think the guys we have here plus the potential for help in the minor leagues could be very useful also. But you're always looking to make yourself better via a trade this time of the season, especially when you're in the position that we are. So definitely we would welcome it if it happened."

Werth's status has certainly changed with the Phillies. He was one of the key, if underrated, members of consecutive NL pennant winners the last two seasons. Though Werth has a .309 TAv this season, the Phillies feel top prospect Domonic Brown is ready to take over in right.

Werth, who has also been linked to the Tigers and Red Sox, insists he pays no attention to the trade talk. In fact, he doesn't really follow baseball despite being the son of Dennis Werth and grandson of Dick Schofield, both former big-leaguers.

"I have other things going on, you know," Werth said. "My focus isn't to go home, go on mindless blog sites, watch TV. I watch TV, but I haven't heard. Whatever I'm watching isn't talking about that, that's for sure."

Meanwhile, Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt shot down speculation that he will only approve a trade if the team acquiring him agrees to exercise the $16 million option in his contract for 2012 rather than buy it out for $2 million. The Cardinals and Phillies have both been reportedly hot in pursuit of Oswalt, who is one win away from tying the Astros' franchise record for career victories (144 wins held by Joe Niekro).

"The money part I can work out with anybody, that's no big deal," Oswalt said. "We can work on doing different things as far as restructuring whatever they want to do. That's not a big deal. I'm going to find a way to get it done if it works for both of us. I'm not going to go somewhere that's going to be bad for me."

The Nationals have cooled after a surprisingly good start. They have gone 22-42 since opening 20-15, giving them a 42-57 record overall and putting them in last place in the NL East.

However, GM Mike Rizzo has not cooled on manger Jim Riggleman. In fact, Rizzo says he plans to bring back Riggleman in 2011 for the second and final guaranteed year of his contract that also includes a club option for 2012.

"He is a terrific baseball manager," Rizzo said. "He has great respect from his peers in this game. When the game starts, he is as good as anybody in the game. He has the respect in the clubhouse. He is a diligent worker and he is a loyal employee."

Meanwhile, Reds manager Dusty Baker will begin talks with CEO Bob Castellini about a contract extension after the trading deadline. Baker is in the final year of a three-year contract and the Reds, who haven't been to the postseason since 1995, and are a half-game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central.

 "I didn't come here to leave," Baker said. "You've got to agree we've made progress."

Speculation has again started that Mets manager Jerry Manuel's job is in jeopardy as his team has gone 2-9 since the All-Star break, dropping them to third in the NL East, 7 ½ games behind the first-place Braves. However, Mets GM Omar Minaya said over the weekend that Manuel is safe.

"Jerry Manuel is our manager," Minaya said. "Anytime you're going to have a couple of losing things, those things are going to pop up. But there's no discussion at all. Jerry Manuel is our manager, will be our manager. We're very happy with the job he's done."

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Rockies have changed their trade focus to Indians third baseman Jhonny Peralta, who is capable of playing all four infield positions, and they're also looking to shore up their bullpen with their eye on Indians closer Kerry Wood, Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg and left-hander Scott Downs, the Royals' Kyle Farnsworth, and the Diamondbacks' Chad Qualls. … The Angels are also looking for relief help after acquiring starter Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks on Sunday and have targeted Farnsworth, the Astros' Matt Lindstrom, and the Blue Jays' Jason Frasor. … The Tigers have jumped to the head of the line to trade for Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly … The Red Sox are the latest team to express interest in Marlins center fielder Cody Ross … The Rays are considering calling up their top prospect, Triple-A Durham right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, and using him in relief for the stretch run and postseason. … The Mets are likely to release right-hander John Maine, who underwent shoulder surgery last week.

Scouts' views on various major-leaguers:

Mets left fielder Jason Bay: "He's always been a streaky guy, so it wouldn't surprise me if he had a big finish. That being said, he just hasn't looked comfortable all year at the plate when I've seen him. It's like he's been searching for the answer all year."

Angels third baseman Alberto Callapso: "I still think it's a reach to think this guy is a starting corner infielder on a winning team, but he can't help but be an upgrade over Brandon Wood."

Cubs right fielder Tyler Colvin: "I really thought his ceiling was as a fourth outfielder but he's changing my mind every day. He's got some speed and he's got some power. He might turn out to be a pretty good player."

Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins: "He just hasn't played with the same energy in Seattle that he did during all those years with the Angels. He's looked unhappy since spring training and I really wonder if the Mariners made a big mistake by moving him out of his comfort zone at third base."

Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda: "He's a very underrated part of that team. He's a steady No. 3 in the rotation, and that's important when you have two kids like (Clayton) Kershaw and (Chad) Billingsley at the top.

Red Sox right-hander John Lackey: "I think the Angels knew exactly what they were doing when they didn't try very hard to re-sign him last winter. He's put a lot of mileage on that arm and he's had some injuries the last few years. He's not the same guy he used to be. His stuff isn't as crisp."

Twins right-hander Carl Pavano: "You've got to give the guy credit because he's having the last laugh. For all that 'American Idle' stuff and calling him a malinger and a quitter in New York, he's proven he can still pitch and be durable. He doesn’t throw gas like he did as a kid, but he's learning how to pitch."

Giants catcher Buster Posey: "He's got some work to do behind the plate, but you can live with that because he's already one of the best offensive catchers in baseball and he's just getting settled in the major leagues. This guy might turn out to be Mike Piazza with just a shade less power."

Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "He's really maturing as a pitcher. It used to be that he'd get in some trouble and just rear back and throw harder. He's learned to take a deep breath, slow the game down and use all his pitches."

Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth: "If the Phillies are serious about trading him, I'd take him in a minute. I know he's struggled lately but he's a good hitter and could be a big difference maker in a pennant race and the postseason."

Pirates utility player Delwyn Young: "If he could field, he'd be a good everyday player. He can't play a lick of defense but he's still a really useful bench guy because he can really hit."

Interesting stories from newspapers across the country:

Three series to watch with probable pitches (all times Eastern):

Tigers (51-46) at Rays (59-38), Monday-Thursday July 26-29
Max Scherzer vs. Matt Garza, 7:10 p.m.; Justin Verlander vs. James Shields 7:10 p.m.; Eddie Bonine vs. Jeff Niemann, 7:10 p.m.; Rick Porcello vs. David Price, 12:10 p.m.

Athletics (50-48) at Rangers (58-41), Tuesday-Thursday July 27-29
Gio Gonzalez vs. Cliff Lee, 8:05 p.m.; Trevor Cahill vs. Colby Lewis, 8:05 p.m.; Vin Mazzaro vs. C.J. Wilson, 8:05 p.m.

Dodgers (53-46) at Padres (58-39), Tuesday-Thursday July 27-29
Chad Billingsley vs. Jon Garland, 10:05 p.m.; Hiroki Kuroda vs. Clayton Richard, 10:05 p.m.; Vicente Padilla vs. Kevin Correia, 6:35 p.m.