(Sports Network) - At just 22 years old, Mat Latos has quickly emerged as the ace of a San Diego staff that's been among the best in baseball this season. The Padres will ask their young standout to play the role of stopper when the National League West leaders wrap up a three-game series with the homestanding Washington Nationals this evening.
Latos enters tonight's matchup with a 9-4 record and a 2.62 earned run average in 16 starts and has limited opposing hitters to a .193 average, best in the majors so far this season. The talented right-hander comes in having won eight of his last nine decisions and has surrendered two runs or less in all but one of his past 11 starts.
The Nationals were one of Latos' victims earlier this year, as he held tonight's foe to two runs on four hits while striking out eight over six innings in a May 29 triumph at Petco Park. He also bested Washington with 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball at Nationals Park during July of last season.
As a team San Diego leads the major leagues with a collective 3.14 ERA, but the playoff hopefuls haven't pitched particularly well during this series. After dropping a 6-5 decision in Tuesday's opener, Padre hurlers served up four homers -- three to Adam Dunn -- as the Nationals came through with a 7-6 triumph.
Dunn registered the first three-homer game of his career and first by a Nationals player since Alfonso Soriano accomplished the feat on April 21, 2006. The first baseman's final blast, a solo shot off reliever Joe Thatcher in the bottom of the eighth inning, gave Washington a 7-5 lead and proved to be the deciding run.
"Dunn is a prolific home run hitter," said Padres manager Bud Black said. "It's what he does. You make a mistake, at times he will make you pay."
Dunn accounted for five of the Nationals' six runs on the night, with Ian Desmond adding a solo homer in the sixth inning. Starting pitcher J.D. Martin (1-4) did his part as well, yielding two runs on six hits over the first 5 2/3 innings to pick up his first win since September 18 of last season.
San Diego pulled within 7-6 on Matt Stairs' pinch-hit homer off Nats closer Matt Capps in the ninth and got the potential tying run to third with two outs. However, Capps got Chase Headley to ground out to first to earn his 23rd save of the year.
Adrian Gonzalez had a big night at the plate as well for San Diego, with the All-Star first baseman going 4-for-5 with a homer and two RBI. That wasn't enough to offset a poor showing from starter Jon Garland (8-6), with the veteran righty tagged for six runs on eight hits -- three of which were homers -- in a six-inning stint.
The Padres, who entered this series off a three-game home sweep of Houston, still hold a three-game lead on both Colorado and Los Angeles in the NL West race.
San Diego will try to bounce back in the team's first-ever encounter with Luis Atilano. The Washington rookie has done a credible job since joining the rotation in late April, having posted a 6-5 record with a 4.72 ERA in 14 starts, but has taken a loss in four of his past five decisions.
Atilano struggled in a home defeat to the New York Mets back on Friday, lasting just 3 2/3 innings and permitting five runs on four hits. The right- hander had pitched well in his two previous starts, allowing three runs (two earned) in a seven-inning no-decision at Baltimore on June 27 and holding Kansas City to a run over 5 1/3 frames five days earlier to record his most recent win.
The 25-year-old has given up only one homer in 31 2/3 innings of work at home this season, but is just 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA over six starts at Nationals Park.
San Diego took two of three games from the Nationals at Petco Park earlier this season and is 10-5 over the last 15 encounters between these teams.