By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; D01
While debate raged as to whether Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg merited selection to the All-Star Game, a more legitimate contender had emerged on the other side of the country in Mat Latos. After the performance by San Diego's young right-hander on Thursday night, even Strasburg's teammates couldn't doubt Latos's worthiness despite his being left off the National League roster.
In a 7-1 loss before 17,364 at Nationals Park, Washington at times looked powerless, if not silly, against Latos, who permitted five hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings while becoming the first Padres pitcher to reach double figures in victories this season. That's a significant milestone considering Latos, 22, is part of a staff with the lowest ERA in the NL and a team with 50 wins.
"He was really good," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said of Latos, who was born in Alexandria. "He's had a real good year, all-star-consideration-type starting pitcher, and he was really good. He threw a good ballgame against us before tonight. We saw him last year, and we saw him out there at their place, and he was every bit the same tonight. He was tough."
The middle of the Nationals' lineup was particularly vulnerable after leading the club to 13 runs over the first two games of the series. Cleanup hitter Adam Dunn, Wednesday night's conqueror with the first three-homer game of his career, struck out three times, including twice swinging to end innings with runners on base. In all, the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters went 2 for 9 with four strikeouts against Latos, who lowered his ERA to 2.45 and had eight strikeouts.
Latos (10-4) even helped himself at the plate in the fourth with the first home run of his career for a 3-0 lead. That was more than adequate support with the way he was abusing the Nationals' lineup, but San Diego added insurance runs in the sixth, seventh and ninth to all but settle the outcome.
Washington's futility at the plate coupled with starter Luis Atilano's uneven outing conspired to foil its bid to sweep San Diego for the first time since 2003, when the franchise was in Montreal. The Nationals (38-48), who got their only run off reliever Luke Gregerson in the eighth, also were seeking their first sweep since taking three in a row from Pittsburgh a month ago.
Atilano made his 15th start of the season since being recalled April 23, days after Jason Marquis went to the disabled list with right elbow soreness. During his short time in the big leagues, Atilano has delivered several sterling performances, including allowing two earned runs or fewer in three of his past six starts before Thursday night. But he twice yielded five earned runs during that span, showing the inconsistency of many a starting pitcher making his first go-round in the majors.
The first inning was indicative of that. Atilano got leadoff hitter Jerry Hairston Jr. to pop up to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in foul territory for the first out but promptly loaded the bases on two hits and an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez, who had gone 6 for 9 with a homer and three RBI in the first two games of the series. Yorvit Torrealba followed with an RBI single to left field that Josh Willingham quickly tossed back into the infield, preventing additional damage, and Atilano got Aaron Cunningham to hit a grounder back to him to start an inning-ending double play.
The Padres (50-35) threatened in the third by putting runners on first and second with one out, but Atilano escaped the predicament by getting the next two hitters to pop up. He wasn't so fortunate in the fourth, when San Diego homered twice in three at-bats. The first came courtesy of Cunningham, who deposited Atilano's third pitch of the inning into the visiting bullpen in left field. Two batters later, Latos drove Atilano's first offering to him into the left field seats.
San Diego added a run in the sixth to chase Atilano (6-6), although he wasn't completely at fault on the scoring play. Second baseman Adam Kennedy, after securing a throw from Zimmerman for a forceout, could have elected to go to first for the double play chance on hitter Chris Denorfia. Kennedy instead threw home to try for Torrealba, the lead runner. The ball, however, went well off line, and the Padres had a 4-0 cushion.
They made it 6-0 an inning later when Latos belted a leadoff single to right-center and scored on a homer by Chase Headley, his sixth of the season. Washington's best chance against Latos, meantime, came in the seventh, when it loaded the bases with two out. But Latos got Nyjer Morgan to ground out to second to end the threat.
By working out of peril, Latos extended a run that has been nothing short of magnificent over the past two months. Entering Thursday's start, Latos had gone 8-1 with a 1.60 ERA since May 7, and opponents batted .157, a major league low. His ERA was the second lowest in the big leagues during that span, trailing only Josh Johnson's 1.06.
"He threw well. I think he's thrown well all year," Zimmerman said. "We had some chances but didn't come through, and they hit some home runs. We took the series, [now] go on to the next one."