Wade LeBlanc pitched another beauty for the San Diego Padres, a team that has relied heavily on a brilliant pitching staff to lead the National League West.

Entering this season, I presumed the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Colorado Rockies would duke it out for the National League West crown. I tossed aside the Arizona Diamondbacks, and, given by their play this year, that choice was a smart one.

But the division’s other team, which I also thought would struggle, has been one of the great surprises so far.

The San Diego Padres ballpark is ginormous. It measures 367 feet to left field, 396 feet to center, 402 feet to the left field and right field alleys, and 382 feet to right field. The offense hasn’t been able to do much there during its seven-year existence.

Last year they were particularly awful: their offense hit a measly .219 at home. I looked for that to continue, especially considering they didn’t make any big offensive acquisitions. To me, slugger Adrian Gonzalez would be once again left alone in the lineup.

Their offense has instead proved me wrong. So far, they are hitting .252 at home, with more than Gonzalez producing. Gonzalez entered their series finale against the Philadelphia Phillies with 11 homers and 36 RBI, putting up his usual numbers,.

But, 35-year old David Eckstein has hit above .280 in the leadoff spot while 26-year-old Corvallis, Oregon native Nick Hundley , same-aged third baseman Chase Headley , and offseason signee Yorvit Torrealba have all swung similarly respectable bats.

Their offensive improvement is not the biggest reason why they entered the finale tied for the divisional lead at 33-23. Their pitching has been amazing from top to bottom. Their team ERA stood at 3.05, the second best mark in the majors. Only three pitchers have ERA’s worse than 3.72, and their starters ERA is a stifling 2.49.

Veteran starting pitcher Jon Garland , who has six wins and a 2.68 ERA, is a recognizable name. But who is Clayton Richard ? How about Mat Latos ? Tim StaufferKevin Correia ? Wade LeBlanc ? No, not at the start of the season at least.

Now they are making names for themselves.

Richard, a 6’5″ 26-year old lefty, has four wins and a sparkling 2.87 ERA. Richard, who was acquired in the deal that sent former ace Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox, has allowed one run or less in five of his last ten starts. 

Latos, a 6’6″ 22-year old righthander off the farm leads the staff in strikeouts with 56, has five wins, and is fifth in the NL with a WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched) of 1.05, which is a bit under the staff’s mark of 1.29.

Stauffer had pitched out of the bullpen to begin the season, but recently made his first start and tossed five shutout innings.

Correia has been the lone starter to struggle, posting a 5.03 ERA over 11 starts. But, fittingly, the offense has repeatedly backed him up, as he has managed to compile five wins.

Then there is LeBlanc, the 25-year old lefthander who was a second round pick of the Padres in 2006. He started against the Phillies, hoping to help his team salvage a series split. He got off to rocky start, but once his outing was over, it was another success story atop the mound for the Padres.

Philadelphia loaded the bases in the first inning, thanks in large part to a double-steal. But their offense, which entered having scored just 41 runs in their past 17 games, couldn’t take advantage.

LeBlanc made them pay for missing the first-inning chance, as their inability to muster much of anything continued, a sight their crowd has seen far too much recently.

They have the hitters, on paper, to do a tremendous amount of damage. This offense had led Philadelphia to two straight World Series appearances. And this offseason they only upgraded with the signing of third baseman Placido Polanco. But having a powerful batting order on the dugout’s lineup card doesn’t amount to much.

LeBlanc didn’t seem fazed by their potential statistical talents. He faced only one more than the minimum over the next six innings, retiring 14 straight at one point. He barely touched 90 on the gun with his fastball, but its extra zip into the hitting zone, as well as his complementary offspeed pitches baffled the already perplexed Phillies.

He finished having thrown those seven innings, allowing just five baserunners and no runs, lowering his ERA to 3.21. And thanks to back-to-back seventh inning homers by Gonzalez and Scott Hairston, he was in line for the victory.

He would get it, in large part due to San Diego’s superb relief core. The bullpen entered with a 2.64 ERA, having pitched three-plus scoreless innings 20 times while allowing only 21 percent of inherited runners to score.

Luke Gregerson , a 26-year old righthander who was selection in 2006′s 28th round by the St. Louis Cardinals and who has been a big piece to this puzzle, entered with 13 holds. He had relinquished only 12 hits and six runs in 29 1/3 innings, and continued to build upon those impeccable numbers, needing only eight pitches to breeze through a scoreless eighth.

Gonzalez added an insurance run in the top of the ninth, his second opposite-field homer of the night, giving closer Heath Bell a three-run cushion to work with. A hefty 32-year old righthander with a fastball in the mid-90′s, he struck out Shane Victorino to begin the frame, but followed by allowing a run to no fault of his own.

Polanco had singled and, after the second out was recorded, moved to second on defensive-indifference when Ryan Howard lifted a flyball near the left-field corner. Scott Hairston stumbled towards it and whiffed on what should have been a relatively easy catch. Polanco scored on the play that inexplicably wasn’t dubbed an error.

Philadelphia now sent Jayson Werth to the plate as the tying run, but he, who entered the at-bat 3-33 over his past 12-plus games, continued to have a tough time, striking out on high cheese to end the threat and the game.

The Padres congratulated Bell on his 16th save, then LeBlanc on another fine outing. This sight has been recurring throughout the season, and though the summer can be long and rough patches are bound to be hit, I believe game-ending congratulations like this will continue for San Diego, a team determined to get back to the playoffs, a place they haven’t been since 2006.

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