SAN DIEGO - It's just four starts, but Padres' pitcher Tyson Ross has already learned a lot about himself in this young season.
After two less-than-ideal starts to begin the year, Ross has rediscovered merits of lengthening his stride, getting more push from his lower body instead of simply trying to muscle the ball.
These reminders have helped Ross to a big turnaround, as evidenced by the eight scoreless innings he tossed in the Padres' 2-1 victory over the Giants on Friday before a crowd of 34,839 at Petco Park.
But as far as smart decisions go, the one Ross made during a thorny spot in the seventh inning with two on base rated every bit as highly as anything pitching coach Darren Balsley has passed along to him.
Lesson No. 1: Know when to get out of the way.
Nursing a 1-0 lead, the only kind of lead the Padres seem to hold these days, Ross allowed a single into right field by Pablo Sandoval and then a walk to Hunter Pence. Balsley bolted from the dugout to calm Ross and remind him to get back to pounding the strike zone.
After falling behind 2-0 to Hector Sanchez, Ross fired a slider that Sanchez rolled up the middle, just to the right of Ross. Ross first instinct was to reach for the ball.
"I thought about trying for it … but realized I had an All-Star shortstop [Everth Cabrera] playing behind me," Ross said, smiling.
The Sanchez ground ball turned into a 6-4-3 double play that led to another scoreless inning, paving the way for a victory by the Padres (8-9) over the Giants (10-7) in the first meeting between the two teams in 2014.
After the game, catcher Rene Rivera was asked what he likes best about catching Ross. Rivera smiled.
"His ball … it moves," he said.
It did Friday, as Ross used his fastball/slider mix with a sprinkling of changeups to tie the Giants in knots. Ross allowed four hits in eight innings with one walk and nine strikeouts. He wasn't stressed much, but when he was Ross always found a way to avoid serious damage.
"He's always had a good arm. He just threw quality strikes. He's tall and he has a good angle on the ball," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who sounded like he was reciting an old scouting report on Ross from his days across the Bay with the A's, when he was more potential than production.
But Ross, for whom general manager Josh Byrnes dealt during the winter of 2012, parting with two Minor Leaguers for him, has developed into something more in his time with the Padres. His slider has become a plus-pitch and rates as one of the best in the National League, if not all of baseball.
In his last two starts, after a handful of suggestions and reminders from Balsley, Ross has yielded but one earned run in his last two starts and 15 innings. He walked two in that stretch with 16 strikeouts.
"We've talked about being aggressive, getting the fastball and slider in the strike zone," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He was stressed right away but from there, he really made pitches."
Ross allowed a double to the first batter of the game, Angel Pagan, but then very little else. He allowed a single to Pagan in the third inning and a leadoff single to Brandon Belt in the fourth inning. The final hit that Ross allowed was the one to Sandoval in the seventh inning. He retired nine consecutive hitters at one point.
"I think the work that I did with Bals got me synched-up again," Ross said. "I was more successful in the strike zone."
Ross wasn't the only pitcher dealing on Friday as Giants pitcher Matt Cain (0-3) was very good as well. Cain allowed one run in the first inning when Chris Denorfia tripled with one out and then scored on a passed ball. At one point, Cain retired 11 consecutive hitters.
All told, Cain allowed one unearned run on four hits with two walks and eight strikeouts over seven innings.
The Padres, who entered the day tied with the Cubs for the fewest runs in the big leagues (45), got just two of them against the Giants, though the second one was mighty important.
Pinch-hitter Yasmani Grandal, hitting for Ross who left after 100 pitches, hit a home run over the fence in right field for a 2-0 lead. This became important a half-inning later when Belt cut the lead in half with a home run of his own off closer Huston Street, who closed out the game anyway for his sixth save.
"We're making the most of it," Black said of the Padres scuffling offense. "There's more runs coming."
Just maybe not when Ross pitches, especially against the Giants, who were the team he grew up rooting against in Berkeley, where he was an A's fan who later got the chance to pitch for his hometown team.
"East Bay, man," Ross said, smiling.