(Sports Network) - With the San Diego Padres engaged in a heated battle for a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season, the team is going to need Mat Latos to regain the form that made him one of the National League's premier starting pitchers for the majority of this 2010 campaign.
With just six left to play, San Diego enters this evening's clash one game behind San Francisco for first place in the NL West and a half-game back of Atlanta for the league's Wild Card berth. The Braves took over the top spot in that race with Monday's extra-inning victory over Florida, combined with the Padres' 1-0 loss to the Cubs in last night's opener of this four-game set.
San Diego received a terrific outing from starting pitcher Tim Stauffer on Monday, but managed only four hits -- all singles -- against Carlos Zambrano and two Chicago relievers in suffering its second straight defeat. The Padres were handed a 12-2 loss by NL Central leader Cincinnati on Sunday.
Zambrano (10-6) continued his stellar pitching down the stretch by yielding just three hits and working around four walks over the first seven innings. The three-time All-Star is now 7-0 with a 1.27 earned run average in 10 starts since being put back in the Cubs' rotation in early August.
"I still have confidence in myself, and all of my pitches are working right now," Zambrano said.
Stauffer (5-5) matched his counterpart until running into trouble in the top of the seventh, when Alfonso Soriano doubled with one out and Blake DeWitt followed with a single to bring home the game's only run.
"I'd like to have a couple of pitches back in the seventh inning," said Stauffer, who gave up just five hits and struck out five in seven frames. "They just put some good swings on a couple of mistake pitches."
San Diego put forth a threat in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with two out against Carlos Marmol, but the Chicago closer was able to retire Nick Hundley on a fly ball to finish off the win.
The Cubs ended a string of five straight defeats in Petco Park and won for only the second time in their last 11 meetings with the Padres. San Diego swept a four-game series between the teams at Wrigley Field from August 16-19.
With every game critical at this stage of the year, the Padres will be counting on Latos to bounce back tonight. While the talented youngster's first full season in the big leagues has been an unquestioned success, he seems to have hit a wall down the stretch.
After setting a major league record by stringing together 15 consecutive starts of at least five innings and yielding two runs or less each time, Latos has lost three straight outings and allowed 16 runs and 22 hits in a span of 10 1/3 innings. The low point occurred in a September 17 matchup at St. Louis in which he was battered for eight runs and nine hits while recording only four outs in a 14-4 Padres' setback.
The right-hander was significantly better in Thursday's start at Los Angeles, but still was hung with a loss after giving up three runs in five innings.
Latos is 1-1 with a 5.91 earned run average in two previous starts against the Cubs, with the victory taking place at Wrigley Field back on August 19. The 22-year-old was on his game that day, holding Chicago to two runs and striking out 10 batters in seven innings.
Chicago's Ryan Dempster will also be seeking to rebound for a brutal recent performance in tonight's tilt. The veteran righty was shelled for nine runs and seven hits in only 1 2/3 innings of work in a home defeat to San Francisco this past Thursday.
The outcome was somewhat shocking, considering Dempster had not permitted a single run over a combined 14 innings in back-to-back road wins over Milwaukee and Florida in his prior two starts.
"I forgot about this one a few innings ago," Dempster said after Thursday's loss. "I had so much time to sit in there and be frustrated and wish you could have that one back."
The British Columbia native has yet to face the Padres this season, but owns a 7-4 record with a 3.83 in 20 lifetime games (11 starts) against tonight's opponent.