SAN DIEGO -- Things are looking up for the San Diego Padres in three distinctly helpful ways.

1 -- Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, out for nearly a month with a right elbow strain, is back and healthy. On Thursday, he looked like Jake Peavy is supposed to look, pitching six shutout innings in a 9-0 victory over the Dodgers.

2 -- "Overall," manager Bud Black says, "We're playing better."

The record clearly supports that notion. After a truly discouraging 18-33 start, the Padres have won 12 of their last 17.

"We've pitched better the last three weeks," Black says. "The bullpen has stabilized itself, and we've had a little more timely hitting toward the end of games."

The manager notes that Greg Maddux and Randy Wolf have been particularly solid in the rotation, while the Padres have received valuable fill-in starts from Josh Banks and Cha Seung Baek. Pitching was supposed to be the strength of this club, and that could still be the case, with more starters returning to full health.

"Things will look even brighter when Chris Young is able to return," Black said. "Farther down the line when Shawn Estes comes back and throws the way he was throwing, we'll have some nice options. We've reshaped the pitching, obviously, since April, trying to find the right combinations. And hopefully, we're reaching the time of the season when we can look out and think: 'Hey, we'll have some stability.' "

3 -- Forces completely outside of the Padres' control have conspired to keep everybody alive in the National League West. How? No one in the division has played up to expectations. Well, perhaps the Giants have played up to expectations, but they began the season with truly minimal expectations.

Based on what happened last year -- a great race, both for the division title and the Wild Card berth -- the NL West looked like a potential powerhouse division for 2008. The Rockies had one of the great Septembers in history and won the Wild Card in dramatic fashion. The Diamondbacks won the West and had terrific young talent. The Padres' pitching was the envy of 29 other clubs. And the Dodgers were loaded with impressive young talent. What a race.

Instead, 10 weeks into the season, what you have is one club -- Arizona -- over .500, and that club has the worst record of any of the six division leaders. Expectations for the overall balance of this division have been met. Expectations for the overall excellence of this division have not even been approached.

"If it does turn out to be a tight race, that's what we expected," Black said. "But the records of the teams in this division are not what we expected. I'm sure if you asked everybody in our division, Arizona included, they probably think that they should be better. I don't think anybody could have anticipated the records in the division, based on the strength of the pitching in this division. But that's why you play the season."

So if the Padres had reason to be discouraged about their first seven weeks, they still find themselves only 6 1/2 games back, in third place, in a situation that doesn't meet their aspirations, but is a long way from hopeless.

"I hope it does turn into the same sort of race as last year, where you have a lot of teams," Black said. "The way it's going, it could be all five teams. I think the teams under .500 have to play better; they have to get to .500 first. There's still plenty of time to do that."

The D-backs, after a very hot start, have come back to the pack, although they still appear to be the strongest team in the division. The young Dodgers have struggled mightily to score adequately -- 21 times this season they have scored one run or less. The Rockies have had some serious regression among their pitchers and injuries have damaged their offense. The Giants have some very talented young pitchers, but they, too, do not score enough.

Going into Thursday, the Dodgers ranked 12th in the NL in runs scored, the Rockies 13th, the Giants 14th and the Padres 15th. At least the "pace of the game" issue is not a big deal here.

It all adds up to competitive balance, of a sort. In the case of the Padres, it adds up to opportunity.

The happiest developments for the Padres were still internal. Those four straight 2-1 victories last week testified to the renewed strength of their pitching. And on Thursday, the sight of their ace back on the mound pitching not only in good health but effectively and efficiently, represented a real lift.

Peavy typically downplayed his own role in this. "This was a good team win for the boys," he said. "The best thing that happened today was beating the Los Angeles Dodgers two out of three and keeping this thing rolling."

Asked what his best pitch was, Peavy responded: "I didn't have one." That may have been a reflection of his own high standards, although it could also mean renewed trouble for the opposition, if he's pitching six shutout innings without liking his stuff that much.

What was indisputable as the Padres left PETCO Park for a road trip was that with Jake Peavy back, with seven victories in their last eight games, with nobody in their division pulling away, the Padres had solid reasons to feel much better about themselves and their chances.