SAN DIEGO -- The talk for much of the last two months is that the Padres are not that far off from contending again in the National League West.

The players have said so. Management has said so. The record since July 28, 37-24 going into Sunday's season finale against the Giants, provided an even greater sense of evidence and optimism.

It wasn't always that way, though, as outfielder Tony Gwynn can attest to. He arrived on May 21 from the Brewers for Jody Gerut, landing just in time for some dark times.

"When I first came over here, in June and July, it felt like we were far, far away," Gwynn said, noting the Padres were 9-17 in June and 8-20 in July.

"But then a few things happen here and there and suddenly you are feeling much better about the situation. A lot of that credit, for me, goes to K.T. [outgoing general manager Kevin Towers] for making those moves and also to the coaches. I think we have got an unbelievable staff. Everyone has done their part."

Since winning a series against Cincinnati on July 27-30, the Padres have posted a .607 winning percentage. That ranks fourth in the Major Leagues and third in the NL over the same time period.

The Padres went into Sunday's game with a 14-5 series record, including series victories over the Dodgers (twice), Rockies (twice) and a handful of other teams that will finish the season with a record over .500.

If his body wasn't telling him otherwise, veteran second baseman David Eckstein would just as soon keep playing. He's had that much fun this season, especially over the last two months.

"It is kind of bittersweet in a sense because over the last two months we have really put things together and we're right on track," Eckstein said.

"Now, we have this layoff. ... The main thing for these guys is to keep in mind what we did these last two months is not a fluke and be prepared from Day One next year."

Gwynn pointed to what he calls better "cohesiveness" in the clubhouse and on the field. The vibe is much different in the clubhouse since the Padres traded Jake Peavy to the White Sox and Scott Hairston to the A's.

But Gwynn is also pointing to a better dynamic on the field, where the Padres became a more athletic bunch in the second half of the season, complete with the return of rookie shortstop Everth Cabrera from the disabled list and sticking Will Venable in the outfield every day. Gwynn also gave the team a weapon on the bases and in the outfield.

"It really shows defensively. I think defensively we were a very good group. That's an important factor for our team going forward, especially in this ballpark," Gwynn said. "We've played defense, we've pitched and we got timely hitting.

"You look at everyone in here. And I think everyone improved from beginning to end."

Asked for a highlight of the year, Eckstein didn't point to one particular moment, not even Cabrera's walk-off grand slam against the Mets on Aug. 7. Cabrera's play was a highlight for Eckstein, but he pointed to the learning curve that several of the players endured in 2009 and how they were better off for it.

"The biggest thing these last two months, it's what makes you love the game, to see so many young guys, see them fail and then turn it around and respond to that failure. To me, that's my highlight and the reason I'm optimistic for next year," Eckstein said.