PHOENIX -- Kevin Kouzmanoff's season has been a continuous series of peaks and valleys, at least in the box scores. But Padres manager Bud Black has seen enough improvement to believe the rookie third baseman's current hot streak could become a more consistent occurrence. "I think that with Kevin we've seen a gradual increase in confidence, just everything," Black said. "He's seeing the ball better. He's swinging at better pitches. He's making better contact on the whole, and his confidence has risen, and it's been incremental. It hasn't been one day here, it's just been a slow progression."
The slow progression has led Kouzmanoff to hit safely in five straight games and seven of eight, batting .435 (10-for-23) with two doubles and five RBIs in the first seven before blasting a home run in his first at-bat Saturday against the D-backs. That stretch includes his third career three-hit game Friday. "[I'm] just feeling more comfortable at the plate," Kouzmanoff said. "Right now I'm just trying to get on base, trying to help the team win." Kouzmanoff's rookie season got off to a slow start, as he owned a .108 batting average on May 7. He proceeded to finish off May strong with a .303 average for the month, including a career-high eight-game hitting streak in which he hit .520 with four doubles, three homers and 12 RBIs. Then he fell back to a .247 average with three homers and 11 RBIs in June. Black understands that when a young player struggles, he starts receiving advice from a number of places outside of the coaching staff. Knowing that, Black talked to him about the process of preparing for good at-bats instead of anything technical about hitting. "A lot of things go through your mind when you're trying to break through as a young player," Black said. "There's always ups and downs, trials and tribulations, but during the early part of the season when things weren't going his way, he handled it very well. He's a tough kid mentally, and I think we're seeing the play out of him now that I think you'll continue to see through the rest of the season and hopefully the rest of his young career." Close but no cigar, again: Kouzmanoff, acquired from Cleveland in November for Josh Barfield, could have made an immediate dent in San Diego history with one more opportunity at the dish Friday. In his 3-for-4 effort, Kouzmanoff fell just a single shy of the first cycle in Padres history. "I was just thinking about hitting the ball, trying to get on base," Kouzmanoff said. "I wasn't trying to hit for the cycle or anything like that, just a home run, triple and double just happened. Sure it's cool, but at the same time it's really out of my control." Kouzmanoff became the 301st Padre to accomplish three of the four legs of a cycle but only the seventh who needed a single to finish the job. He tripled and homered in his first two at-bats and doubled in the ninth, but a seventh-inning flyout to left doomed the No. 8 hitter's bid at history when the Padres could not force extra innings. "He got the hardest two out of the way early, but it's a tough feat," Black said. "It would have been nice to have him have an opportunity. Brandon Lyon and [Doug] Slaten had a different idea." Cruz Jr. in with hot matchup: Jose Cruz Jr. started in left field for the Padres to get him in the lineup and because he has hit Arizona starter Livan Hernandez well in his career. Cruz hit the first pinch-hit homer of the season for San Diego in Friday's game and had not started since a July 6 contest against the Braves. "You've got to get your backup players in there as soon after the break as you can," Black said. "You want to try to keep them as prepared as possible. It's been awhile. You'll see some changes maybe tomorrow as well." Although originally saying the move did not have to do with Cruz's stats against Hernandez, Black later made it be known he's very aware of those numbers. "I'm not going to lie to you, he has decent numbers against Hernandez," Black said. "Ten-for-20, not bad at all, .500 and some extra-base hits." Bradley on the bench: Milton Bradley will take Cruz's place as a switch-hitting outfielder on the bench. "I think this was a good day for him to take a break," Black said. "He'll be back in there tomorrow and Monday. He hasn't played a lot. I think he has only 19 games coming to us. I think there's a conditioning aspect. I know we have four days off with the break. I want him to play tomorrow, and I want to get Jose in there." Peavy throws: Ace Jake Peavy threw a light side session before Saturday's game as he prepares for Tuesday's start, which was moved back from his originally scheduled date of Sunday because of biceps soreness. Up next: The Padres wrap up their three-game series with the D-backs on Sunday at 1:40 p.m. PT at Chase Field. Justin Germano will start for San Diego against Arizona ace Brandon Webb.
Michael Schwartz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.