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Bullpen anchors San Diego Padres

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Reporting from San Diego — The San Diego Padres relievers gathered in spring training to learn the season’s mission statement. Manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley knew what they were up against in the National League West: the Dodgers’ more powerful lineup, the San Francisco Giants’ star-power rotation and the Colorado Rockies’ penchant for lengthy winning streaks.

“They told us we’d be the foundation of the team, the reason we won or lost,” closer Heath Bell said.

They have been exactly that.

As the Dodgers open a crucial three-game series at Petco Park six games out of first place, the Padres not only still lead the division but, nearly 100 games into the season, lead the majors with a 3.27 earned-run average and have limited opponents to a .238 batting average.

They’ve done it without veteran starter Chris Young, relying instead on their dominant bullpen.

Of course, Bell had already proved he wouldn’t shrink under pressure, inheriting closing duties from baseball’s all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, a year earlier and producing 42 saves. This time, he’d need more chances to protect leads.

Black, who directed the Angels’ 2002 staff to a World Series title, knew his starters were poised to flex strong, young arms with 90-mph speed. He also knew that in-depth scouting reports and an ability to tap into that information when it counted most — during games — would be key.

“It is similar to ’02, when we had that consistent rotation, guys who keep us in the game,” Black said. “My message has been that I expect reliability, not one great game and one bad one. I realize I’m not sitting here with a [Ubaldo] Jimenez or Josh Johnson on my staff. But my guys are reliable.”

After the Dodgers let free-agent starter Jon Garland go last winter, the Padres signed him, knowing the right-hander could make an impression — with his 2005 World Series ring won with the Chicago White Sox and his steady approach — on the younger Mat Latos and Clayton Richard. An unflappable, fast-working left-hander, Richard was the top prospect landed by the Padres in their 2009 trading-deadline deal that sent former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy to the White Sox.

Despite not having Young, who is out until at least September because of shoulder problems, the Padres starters have been able to take the lead to the seventh inning more times than not.

It’s there that Padres pitching upgrades to Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams.

You’re not alone in asking, who?

Yet, Gregerson and Adams are the ones who’ve made the team’s reputation this: If you’re not beating the Padres by the end of six innings, you’re not beating them.

The Padres are 51-8 when leading or tied after six innings, tops in the NL and third in the majors in that category. They also have the most victories in one-run games with 19.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake describes San Diego’s relievers as “pretty salty.”

Dodgers Manager Joe Torre figures it will be an uphill battle.

“Coming out of the bullpen, they throw hard and they locate,” he said. “Locating is the big thing. …You have a lot of guys who can rear back and throw the ball, but not knowing where it goes, eventually that’s going to catch up with you. When you locate the ball and do it with regularity, you can make a mistake and get away with it because they’re not looking for that.”

Gregerson embraced the Padres’ daunting spring challenge as would be expected from a 28th-round draft pick who’s the son of a Midwest boilermaker. After following his working-class dad around in a later job — maintaining a condominium complex — Gregerson developed a work ethic suited to overhauls.

“Everything from drywall to electricity, plumbing,” he said. “I can do all that stuff on my own. If I have to go back to work, which I hope I don’t, it’s good to know. … No one giving you anything for free, having to work for everything; I’ve used that in baseball.”

The more pressing assignment now is to win the NL West, and Gregerson’s slider mastery has given him 59 strikeouts with only nine walks in 48-plus innings, limiting batters to a .145 average. He has 23 holds in advance of Bell’s NL-leading 29 saves.

“It’s all about executing your pitch,” said Gregerson, 26, whom the Padres acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2009 season in exchange for shortstop Khalil Greene. “I don’t think about anything else but that out there.”

Eighth-inning man Adams, 31, who was acquired by the Padres in a trade with the Cleveland Indians in 2006, found his motivation by enduring a lost 2007 season because of two surgeries on his left knee and one on his right.

“I pondered what I lost and it brought this hunger back to my life,” the 6-foot-5 Adams said. “Once I got back to the big leagues, I stopped taking baseball for granted.”

Eligible to return Tuesday from the 15-day disabled list after experiencing pain in his left side, Adams has 22 holds with 46 strikeouts and has given up only one home run in 41-plus innings, using his slingy delivery to uncork 94-mph fastballs that cut and sink to go along with curves and sliders.

The Padres’ timely late-inning hitting and league-best defense have clinched their top place in the standings despite a $38-million payroll that’s second-lowest in the majors. But it has been the work of Gregerson, Adams and Bell that has San Diego saying things that four months ago were being scoffed at, and probably still are.

“We’re good, we believe that, we know it,” Adams said. “Everyone might be waiting for us to fall apart, but we believe this is our year. Belief in each other is a weird thing. It’s mind over matter.”

Black leaves most of the daily grind, like pitchers’ meetings, to Balsley, but Bell credits the manager’s wisdom in handling arms — “always positive, always approachable, calm, confident” — for the Padres’ ERA being the lowest in the majors.

“If I feel strongly about something, I’ll engage the [pitchers],” Black said. “I reaffirm to Darren before facing certain hitters in a series that certain pitches be thrown and certain pitches not be thrown. He knows that, but I feel better saying it.”

In his fourth year under Black, Balsley said his most significant post-All Star task will be closely watching the pitchers’ mechanics and maintaining an open dialogue to ensure fatigue doesn’t sabotage the arms in September.

They played it cautious with Adams, for example, by putting him on the disabled list and had 22-year-old Latos (11-4, 2.48 ERA), the team’s ace, skip a start after racking up 106-plus innings before the All-Star break.

Latos, who was snubbed for the All-Star team, is matter-of-fact about it all.

“I’m not here to win an All-Star game,” he said. “I’m here to help this team win a division.”

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.

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