Watching Wade LeBlanc pitch the San Diego Padres to a victory over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday put me in mind of a spring training game I saw in Arizona, the Padres facing the Chicago White Sox. LeBlanc worked that day as well. At the time, we were told the left-hander was pitching for his spot on the team, and that's exactly what he looked like -- a guy trying desperately to win a spot.
Fast forward these several months, and while LeBlanc isn't contending for the Cy Young Award, he isn't embarrassing himself, either. His 8-2 dispatch of Tim Lincecum and the Giants gave him seven wins and a 3.46 ERA for a Padres team that led the NL West by 3½ games going into Monday's play.
And what that really means is that Bud Black has done it again.
"Manager of the Year" is a strange annotation in general. It's often an award predicated in large measure on how mediocre a team was expected to be in the first place. It also can be handed to a manager for little more than navigating the huge egos that accompany absurdly talented teams. In general, it's a lousy barometer of managerial acumen.
With that said, if Black isn't the NL's MOY this season, you'd have to go a long way to explain why. The Padres are playing August baseball that matters. End of argument.
In so many respects, Bud Black is managing the Minnesota Twins of yore, or the Brewers or Pirates of today if they were any good. Though San Diego is no one's idea of a minor market, the Padres are being handled as a minor-market team, with a chintzy payroll of around $38 million. Before Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada arrived via trade, the offense was basically Adrian Gonzalez and When Can You Get Here? It was just an absurd way to try to compete with the Dodgers, Rockies and Giants.
But Black has been masterful in managing those limited resources, and I write that knowing how much can still go haywire for the Padres down the stretch of this season. Any team predicated on pitching will always feel a little bit susceptible; that's part of the deal. But you look up, and Black's five-man rotation -- Mat Latos, Jon Garland, Clayton Richard, Kevin Correia and LeBlanc -- has accounted for all but two of the starts made by the team this season.
The Padres are watching Latos closely. A pitcher who hasn't thrown more than 123 innings in a season, the right-hander already has gone past the 135-inning mark. LeBlanc, too, is closing in on career marks for innings pitched. Black, the former pitcher and pitching coach, is certainly clued in.
And those will be his toughest calls down the stretch, because virtually no one expected the Padres to contend for anything this season. The fact that they are not only still viable, but actually leading the division, means that Latos and LeBlanc can't simply be switched off for the year when they hit some preset innings limit. San Diego is going too well for that to be the driving consideration.
The Padres' series in San Francisco represented the essence of Black's success with his team this season. San Diego won two of the three games, holding the Giants to seven runs total; the team's only loss came in extra innings.
The Padres are 11th in the NL in runs scored and 13th in batting average, yet they appear now to have exactly enough offensive savvy to punish an underperforming pitcher. Against Lincecum and subsequent Giants pitchers on Sunday, Tejada and Ludwick, the new additions, collectively reached base seven times in their 10 plate appearances. Gonzalez, the team leader in almost every offensive category, struck out four times and yet the Padres had more than enough to win.
It's not a ton. It'll never be confused with powerful. But with Black constantly threading the needle with his pitching staff and a sure-handed defense, it is just right.
Cheap, too. You can see Bud Selig smiling from here, even if it still feels a bit like a fluke.
Of the five other division leaders in baseball, the only comparable situation to San Diego's is the one in Texas (roughly a $55 million payroll), and the Rangers were essentially owned by the bank before being conditionally sold to Nolan Ryan's group. Everybody else, even the perennially "mid-market" Cincinnati Reds, have more dollar toys to play with than the Padres are spending.
But fine lines can be difficult. Any reading of the Padres' recent games leads you to the conclusion that this young rotation could yet run out of gas, putting more pressure on a bullpen that Black already is furiously juggling to spread innings.
In the pivotal three-game set with the Giants, Black went to his bullpen 11 times to squeeze out two victories, giving San Diego a 9-2 season-series advantage over San Francisco. Expect to see more of that. Expect to see more four- and five-reliever games, as Black consistently asks his starters simply to get the Padres to the sixth inning with a lead.
Past the sixth, San Diego's suffocating bullpen, anchored by closer Heath Bell, takes the life out of opponents. And with the Padres playing 13 of their next 16 games against sub-.500 teams, the opportunity is there for them to stretch their lead in the West.
You believe this stuff? The San Diego Padres, nobody's choice to win the division back when Wade LeBlanc was pitching for his job in spring training, are in position to start closing things out in the next month. Bud Black now says he felt pretty good about his team's chances back then. He kept a wonderful secret.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com and the author of "The Voodoo Wave," to be published next year by W.W. Norton. His book "Six Good Innings" was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.