SAN DIEGO -- Padres manager Bud Black joked before Friday's series opener that he gave new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus one bit of advice as Ausmus left the San Diego front office to replace Jim Leyland: Make sure to keep Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Co. healthy.
He could have added one more tip for this weekend's series, a matchup that always evokes memories of the 1984 World Series: Do not underestimate the Padres.
Not that Ausmus and the Tigers did. But a work-in-progress San Diego team which has struggled to score runs early in the season leaned on the re-emergence of Will Venable, the quiet magic of pitching coach Darren Balsley and the stick-to-itiveness of big right-hander Tyson Ross to seize a 5-1 win Sunday at Petco Park to take two of three from the American League powerhouse.
"The bats still aren't there," Black said. "The guys will tell you that. You look at the averages, they're still not where they need to be.
"But I thought the at-bats were better than they were in Cleveland and Miami."
One big swing turned this one sharply: Venable's first-pitch whack at Scherzer's 90 mph four-seamer with two on in the fourth. Venable chopped the pitch into right field for a double, sending Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso home to snap a 1-1 tie.
Scherzer created his own trouble, uncharacteristically walking both Headley and Alonso to start the inning. But if he was counting on the silence of both the Padres and Venable with runners in scoring position to ease his pain, he was badly mistaken.
"I think you always have to be aggressive and go for the knockout," Black said of Venable's first-pitch swing after the two walks. "From the pitcher's perspective, you know it's going to be, 'I've got to get strike one.'"
Not only did the Padres enter the day with the worst batting average with runners in scoring position in the Majors (.143), Venable stepped to the plate 0 for his past 15 and having gone 21 consecutive games without an RBI. It was the second-longest RBI-less streak of his career.
"He's in that group of guys who are at or around .200," Black said. "We're less than 50 at-bats in for a guy who projects to get 450 to 500 at-bats."
Venable was thinking along with Black, looking to be aggressive. He noted that Scherzer had struck him out on a changeup down in the second inning. Consequently, Venable said if he got something up, he was going to let it fly. And he did.
The fourth-inning double wound up being Venable's only hit on the afternoon. But it was the deal-breaker. Two batters later, he scored on Ross's base hit to extend San Diego's lead to 4-1. And the way the 6-foot-5 Ross was pitching, the Padres stood tall.
The big right-hander came to San Diego in a trade with Oakland in November 2012 and really pitched his way into the Padres' plans by posting a 2.93 ERA from July 23 through the end of last season.
But in his first two starts this season, Ross was 0-2 with a 4.35 ERA. He did not pitch into the seventh inning in either outing, and most worrisome was his walk/strikeout ratio: Nine of each.
So on the Padres' off-day last Thursday, there was Ross, throwing his between-starts bullpen session, while Balsley watched, instructed and suggested. The problem, Balsley and Black had ascertained, was that Ross was not properly using the lower half of his long body during his delivery.
For a tall guy, Ross is a short-strider on the mound. This creates a steep downward angle on the ball, which helped get Ross back to where he was the second half of last year. But by relying too much on his upper half, Ross' command had gone spotty and his walk rate was on the rise.
Thursday's fixes were apparent from the beginning against the Tigers. Ross retired the first seven hitters. He fanned three Tigers in one four-batter stretch: Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson and Nick Castellanos.
Most noticeably, by the time Ross' afternoon was finished, he had walked only one hitter during his season-high seven innings. He did hit one more with a pitch. But against seven strikeouts and just one run -- Torii Hunter scored in the fourth following a leadoff double -- the improvement was marked.
"Definitely a step in the right direction," Ross said.
The most important part of Thursday's adjustments: Ross made sure to stay back on his back (right) leg a beat or two longer than in his previous two starts. He was coming off of the rubber with his leg just a little too quickly earlier, which put things out of whack.
"I threw a lot more strikes than I did last time," Ross said.
The box score bears him out: Of his 100 pitches against the Tigers, 71 were strikes. In Cleveland on Tuesday, only 49 of his 94 pitches were strikes. And in his first start of the season against the Dodgers on April 2, only 60 of his 100 pitches were strikes.
By riding his back leg a little longer Sunday, he said, he had "better velocity, better control and the ball comes out of my hand a little better."
Ross is an anomaly as a tall guy with a short stride.
"I sort of like tall guy, long stride," Black said. "But Tyson has shown that the way he throws the ball can be effective."
Scott Miller is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.