- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

WASHINGTON | Mat Latos offered a simple explanation for his recent run of strong pitching.

“Pounding the strike zone,” the San Diego Padres right-hander said. “Instead of nitpicking at the corners, I’m just going after hitters — and that’s been a big success.”

Sure has.

Latos extended his scoreless streak to 15 innings and had two hits, including one of San Diego’s season-high four homers, leading the Padres to a 7-1 victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night.

Latos (10-4) gave up five hits and two walks, with eight strikeouts, across seven shutout innings and won his career-high fifth consecutive decision.

“He’s showing what we all think he can do. He’s not just a young kid with great, unbelievable stuff that doesn’t know what he’s doing. Every outing he’s learning,” said San Diego’s All-Star closer, Heath Bell. “I told him, ‘You have the potential to be a No. 1. You have the potential, when we lose a few games, to be that stopper, that ace that we know we can ride.’ … With Mat, we have a chance to win every single outing.”

The Padres avoided a series sweep after allowing 13 runs while losing the first two games.

And Latos was as good at the plate as on the mound Thursday, smacking his first career homer in 46 major league at-bats, then singling and scoring in the seventh.

After Latos drove the first pitch he saw from Luis Atilano (6-6) in the fourth inning over the wall in left field, near the visiting bullpen, Bell and other Padres relievers negotiated a trade of five baseballs to retrieve the memento for their teammate.

“Nice. That’s a solid bullpen, putting in work right there,” said Latos, the 12th Padres pitcher to reach 10 wins before the All-Star break.

San Diego’s Chris Denorfia homered for the second consecutive game, Chase Headley hit a two-run shot and Jerry Hairston Jr. went deep in the ninth.

That was plenty of offense for Latos, who has pitched at least seven innings without allowing a run in six of 17 starts this season.

“He mixes it up. He’s obviously got a good fastball,” Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s been throwing well all year.”

The 22-year-old Latos retired 11 consecutive batters from the third through sixth innings. The Nationals got to him for three singles in the seventh, but Latos escaped without allowing a run. Nyjer Morgan grounded out with the bases loaded for the final out.

“That kid’s got something special,” Morgan said.

Atilano went 5 1-3 innings, giving up eight hits and four runs.

“My breaking stuff wasn’t working today,” said Atilano, who’s lost five of his past six decisions.

Yorvit Torrealba’s RBI single in the first put San Diego ahead 1-0, and the score stayed that way until the fourth, when Denorfia drove a solo shot to left on the first pitch of his at-bat. He had zero homers this season until Wednesday, when he hit one as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

Latos made it 3-0 one out later. The Padres boosted their lead to 4-0 in the sixth on Denorfia’s fielder’s choice grounder, and that was it for Atilano. He was replaced by Miguel Batista, who gave up Latos’ single leading off the seventh and then allowed Headley’s sixth homer of the season, making it 6-0. Headley went 3 for 5, including a double.

Washington’s run came on a single by Adam Dunn in the eighth off Luke Gregerson. Dunn struck out in all three at-bats against Latos.

Hairston’s sixth homer came off Doug Slaten, Washington’s fourth pitcher.

NOTES: Zimmerman was beaten out by Reds 1B Joey Votto in four days of fan voting on the Internet for the final spot on the National League’s All-Star roster. “He shouldn’t even have been on the ballot,” Zimmerman said about Votto. “He should be the starter at first base.” … San Diego CF Tony Gwynn Jr. was not in the lineup after bruising his heel Wednesday night in San Diego’s 7-6 loss at Washington. Padres manager Bud Black said Gwynn “jammed his heel” while climbing the outfield wall trying to make a catch.

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