And they are determined to prove it to the pennant-contending teams they will face down the stretch.
Gonzalez hit his 35th home run of the season Sunday night after Kevin Kouzmanoff drove in San Diego's first three runs, and the Padres got a huge effort from their bullpen to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-3.
"It's always good when you've got a team full of basically nobodies going against Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Andre Ethier and beat a team like that," reliever Luke Gregerson said. "We've struggled a lot this year, and I think that has a lot to do with so many new guys and young guys coming in.
"It's just a matter of throwing them in the fire and saying, 'Hey, we need you guys to produce.' And now that we have a lot of games under our belts, this team's really started to come together from every aspect." San Diego's starting pitchers in this series -- Wade LeBlanc, Mat Latos and Tim Stauffer -- all began this season in the minor leagues. But the last-place Padres still managed to win two games from the NL West-leading Dodgers, whose margin over Colorado remained at 4 1/2 games with San Francisco lurking a game behind the Rockies.
"We talked about the schedule and what it meant for us," manager Bud Black said. "It's a good litmus test for our guys to play against teams that are competing for either a division title or a wild card spot. I want the opposition to know that when we take the field against them, they're in for a good ball game. The guys have taken that challenge to play to a certain level to see if we measure up, and they're responding."
Stauffer (4-6) won his third straight start, allowing three runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings after departing with a 4-1 lead. Two of the runs against the right-hander were unearned, the result of rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera's fielding error on a routine grounder by pinch-hitter Mark Loretta with one out in the Dodgers' two-run seventh.
Joe Thatcher relieved Stauffer with runners at first and second. Ethier lined the left-hander's first pitch down the left field line for a two-run double. Gregerson retired pinch-hitter Matt Kemp on a fly ball for the final out in the seventh and then struck out the side in the eighth, and Heath Bell worked a hitless ninth for his 35th save in 38 attempts.
The Dodgers, who set a modern major league record with their 13-0 home start, have won only one of their last seven series at Chavez Ravine.
The loss spoiled the return of Hiroki Kuroda (5-6) from the disabled list in his first start since getting hit in the head with a line drive on Aug. 15 at Phoenix. The 34-year-old right-hander gave up four runs -- three earned -- and four hits over five innings with three walks and three strikeouts.
"I was very satisfied with the way he came through it tonight," manager Joe Torre said. "I thought he competed very well. I thought his stuff was good, but he might have just been a little bit rusty as far as command."
The Padres took the lead with an unearned run in the first after David Eckstein reached on a one-out fielding error by three-time Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson. Eckstein scored on Kouzmanoff's grounder to short, barely eluding Russell Martin's attempted sweep tag as Rafael Furcal's hurried throw went slightly offline.
Kouzmanoff made it 3-0 in the third with a bases-loaded two-run single up the middle. It gave the Padres third baseman 83 RBIs, one shy of his career-best from last year. His other three-RBI game this season was Aug. 26 in Stauffer's 12-5 win at Atlanta.
Martin got the Dodgers on the board with an RBI single in the fourth. But Gonzalez got the run back for the Padres in the fifth, driving a 3-2 pitch into the bullpen in left field. It left the two-time All-Star one homer shy of the career-high total he established last year, and increased his major league-leading road home run total to 24.
Gonzalez joined Nate Colbert as the only players in the Padres' 41-year history with two seasons of 35 or more home runs. Colbert hit 38 in 1970 and duplicated that total in 1972.
"He's just putting up his numbers," Bell said. "Adrian's one of the best hitters around, and I just think he gets overshadowed or overlooked because he's in San Diego. But he can crush the ball. I don't really think he's having an outstanding year. He's just having an average year for him."
Gonzalez also doubled and drew his major league-leading 103rd walk, 29 more than he had in 162 games and 700 plate appearances last season.
Cabrera, who tied a Padres franchise record with three errors in Saturday's 7-4 loss, has 13 errors at SS -- while 3B Kouzmanoff and 2B Eckstein lead the majors in fielding percentage at their respective positions. ... Ethier needs eight RBIs in the Dodgers' final 24 games to reach 100, and Kemp needs 12. The last time two Dodgers drove in 100 or more runs in the same season was 2001, when Shawn Green had 125 and Gary Sheffield got his 100th on the final day of the season with a run-scoring triple. ... Tony Gwynn Jr. has no RBIs in 30 at-bats against the Dodgers this season, and just two in 45 at-bats overall. His father had 90 RBIs against the Dodgers in 822 at-bats -- all with the Padres. ... Ramirez is 6 for 35 against the Padres this season with two homers and five RBIs in 12 games. He played in nine games against them last season after joining the Dodgers at the non-waiver trading deadline, going 8-for-29 with five homers and 14 RBIs.