The pitcher-perfect San Diego Padres, the National League's best team, do not need much help.
Thus, when the Pirates put the opposing leadoff man aboard in six of the nine innings, twice by way of infield errors, that 9-2 loss that showed on the scoreboard Saturday night should have been no surprise to anyone amid the capacity crowd of 36,967 at PNC Park.
"That's a good team," starter Jeff Karstens said. "You don't want to give them any openings."
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez's error opened San Diego's decisive three-run sixth, first baseman Garrett Jones' error opened a five-run eighth, and the rest was formulaic for the Padres: Mat Latos, the Padres' 22-year-old pitching sensation, allowed only solo home runs by Jose Tabata and Delwyn Young over his six innings, the toughest bullpen in Major League Baseball put up zeroes, and the defense made all the plays.
Game: Pirates vs. San Diego Padres, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Brad Lincoln (1-3, 6.29) vs. LHP Wade LeBlanc (4-8, 3.28).
Key matchup: Lincoln vs. contact. He has struck out only 18 in 44 1/3 innings, and he got only four swings and misses Tuesday in 17 batters faced.
Of note: San Diego's .990 fielding percentage is ranked No. 1 in the National League, No. 2 in Major League Baseball. The Pirates, who were No. 1 in the majors last year, now are 27th at .980.
It all looked rather academic, and none of it was a fluke: San Diego is 57-39, atop the West Division, atop the majors in ERA at 3.28 and No. 2 in the majors in fielding percentage at .990. The Padres' offense is not at those levels, but a .275 average with runners in scoring position ranks third in the league, and that just might be intertwined.
"I think you see, with the confidence they have in their pitching, they feel like one big hit or two might be enough," the Pirates' manager, John Russell, said. "Everything feeds off their pitching, which is the big reason they're doing so well."
One big reason the pitching is so strong is Latos, who would strike out seven in improving to 11-4, with his ERA at 2.48 and opponents batting .198, the latter the lowest such figure in the majors.
"He was good," Russell said. "Threw hard up to 96 mph, changed speeds, mixed the breaking ball and changeup ... I thought we had good at-bats and kept the game close. The home runs were big."
Latos had not given up a home run since June 10, but that streak was snapped at 153 at-bats in the third, when Tabata drove a 2-1 sinker beyond the fence in right-center for his second of the season and a 1-0 lead.
San Diego tied it in the fifth on Everth Cabrera's RBI single, but Young took Latos deep in the bottom half, tomahawking a first-pitch flat slider over the Clemente Wall to restore a one-run lead.
"The kid kept the ball down, threw hard," Young said. "I was pretty impressed, and I think we all were."
As an aside: Four of Young's five home runs have come off Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay, Washington phenom Stephen Strasburg, San Francisco All-Star Brian Wilson and Latos. The other was off Milwaukee's Randy Wolf.
Alvarez's error opened San Diego's three-run sixth: Jerry Hairston Jr. hit a hard but playable bouncer between Alvarez and third base, and he tried to backhand it. It zipped past him, and Hairston easily had two bases.
Earlier in the game, an Adrian Gonzalez grounder eluded Alvarez much the same way for a single.
"No, Gonzalez's had a little more spin," Russell replied to that. "This one had some topspin and wasn't hit really hard. Pedro was down, and the ball came up a little bit. It's not an easy play."
From there, Karstens did himself no favors in walking Chris Denorfia -- after Denorfia had tried to bunt -- and giving up RBI singles to Gonzalez and Chase Headley. After an out and intentional walk, Nick Hundley's sacrifice fly put the Padres up, 4-2.
Nothing was really stung, but ...
"Things haven't gone my way, but that's just part of baseball," Karstens said. "What can I say? They gave me a 2-1 lead, and I let it slip away."
"I thought Jeff threw the ball pretty well," Russell said. "Kept them off balance. Slider was working pretty well."
Karstens has given the Pirates seven official quality starts, and this qualified, too, as two of his four runs over six innings were unearned. But that is accompanied by a less flattering trend of fading as the game goes on: Through the first five innings this season, Karstens' ERA is 3.18. After the fifth, it is 13.06. In his previous start against Milwaukee, he was perfect through four, then allowed two home runs.
"I feel like I'm so close to getting over that hump," Karstens said.
San Diego ran away with a five-run eighth, opening with Jones failing to collect a roller his way. Reliever Sean Gallagher, discarded by the Padres a month ago, gave up a single and walk to load the bases, then balked in a run -- he leaned forward upon getting set -- to make the score 5-2.
It was Gallagher's second awkward-looking balk in five appearances since joining the Pirates.
Russell prefers to use his setup men, Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, both of whom have been used extensively, when there is a lead.
"I can't use them every night," Russell said.
On the brighter side, Tabata had another terrific game atop the order, going 3 for 4 with the home run, a double and two runs. He is on a .388 tear -- 19 for 49 -- over the past dozen games.
The Pirates have lost three in a row and are 4-5 on this homestand that ends this afternoon, with struggling Brad Lincoln trying to avert the sweep.