Pitching puts Padres ahead of the Pirates

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Just two summers ago, these San Diego Padres, the team that has been stiff-arming the new look Pirates all weekend on the North Side, were on their way to exactly 63 wins, a decidedly inglorious figure particularly if you consider that it was four fewer than would be managed by the utterly forgettable 2008 Pirates.

So how come, do you figure, the Pirates continue to search for a future with a club that likely won't win 60, while the Padres are going to the World Series with the second-lowest payroll in baseball?

What, you're not looking for the Padres in the Fall Classic?

Who ever does?

Empirically then, let's just point out that in their 43 seasons of National League baseball, only two other times have the Padres won at least 56 of their first 95 games. They started 61-34 in 1984, and 56-39 in 1998. Both those teams played in the World Series.

But if this working Pirates-Padres comparison could be explained in one word, that word would certainly be pitching.

Saturday night, 22-year-old righty Mat Latos, the best pitcher nobody seems to talk about, worked six more muscular innings to pump his record to 11-4. He was celebrating his escape from the disabled list, winning his sixth consecutive decision on a night when he allowed his first homers since June 10, harmless solo shots by Jose Tabata and Delwyn Young. Opponents were hitting .193 against Latos at game time, the best such figure in baseball.

Working on a stretch that would extend to 17 consecutive scoreless innings before Tabata rode a high fastball to the right-field seats in the third inning, Latos held his right elbow high to start each motion, taking the ball from his glove like he was drawing the winning 50-50 ticket.

Drafted and developed by the Padres, Latos is a fairly glaring example of something the Pirates can't seem to do. Draft it, develop it, trade for it, find it in free agency, or try buying on QVC, the Pirates have none of the kind of starting pitching that will allow its young offensive stars to do much other than spin their wheels for the foreseeable future.

Jeff Karstens was out there again last night, and Karstens is very game if not terribly accomplished. You could say he was not bad, but he was not good enough, which is pretty much the rhetorical blanket that covers all this team's starters.

Karstens had actually emerged as something of a stopper in this lost summer, so don't look too hard at it, because he hasn't won since June 19.

So right, who'll stop the stopper?

Pittsburgh's starters are now 18-52. Latos and teammate Jon Garland by themselves are 20-10.

The Pirates have an admirable bullpen, but it is nothing like that which persists in San Diego, where the best bullpen ERA in baseball (2.84) has given birth to the rare but usually annoying collective bullpen nickname, this time the PENitentiary.

It could be worse.

At least it's not stuPENdous.

Structurally, the Padres have been sound all season due principally to the rotation of Latos, Garland, Clayton Richard, Wade LeBlanc and Kevin Correia. Like Latos, LeBlanc was drafted and developed by the Padres. He'll work the series finale this afternoon. Garland and Correia were free agents, and Richard came in the big package necessary to transport Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline last summer.

Of course, if the Padres plan on playing on toward Halloween, these five plus the PENitentiary will be the reasons, because despite last night's nine-run outburst, Bud Black's team remains fairly miserable with the wood.

At the weekend, only the Pirates and the Houston Astros could be considered inferior offensive teams to the Padres. Only the Pirates, Astros and Washington Nationals had scored fewer runs. Only the Pirates, Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers had fewer homers. This offense is Adrian Gonzales, the splendid San Diego-born first baseman, and a collection of Hairstons, Hundleys and Headleys who amuse themselves waiting for Matt Stairs to hit one 500 feet.

The former Pirate, former Phillie, former Blue Jay, former Tiger, former Ranger, former Royal, former Brewer, former Cub, former A, former Red Sock, former Expo has homered twice in 41 games.

The pressing issue for the moment is whether San Diego wants to take a run at adding Miguel Tejada before July 31, as Billy Eckstein has landed on the disabled list with a leg injury.

The Pirates have no so pressing issue. In 10 summers at PNC Park, they have never won a series against San Diego. In 10 summers at PNC Park, there have been no winning seasons, or just nine fewer than in the first 10 summers at Three Rivers Stadium.

As ever, not to be critical.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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