Nationals fall 7-1 to Padres

Whenever he gets a question about the Nationals trying to extend a winning streak, Jim Riggleman reverts to a truism repeated by baseball people for years: “Momentum is only as good as your next starting pitcher.”

There’s nothing that can stop momentum quicker than an opposing starter on a roll or a bad performance from your own pitcher. It’s like an electrical current, and either of those things are the breaker. The Nationals ran into both of them on Thursday night.

That’s why their 7-1 loss to the Padres was such a simple, clean affair, effectively decided by the end of the fourth inning and over in a tidy 2:33, time enough for Nationals players to become interested observers in the LeBron James free-agent announcement showing on the clubhouse TV sets.

Jim Riggleman meets with the media following the Nats’ 7-1 loss to the Padres

Padres starter Mat Latos was brilliant, his slider diving under and away from Nationals bats for eight strikeouts in seven shutout innings, and Luis Atilano again ran into trouble, giving up two homers and leaving before the end of the sixth inning for the fifth time in six starts.

The loss cost the Nationals a shot to sweep the Padres and sent them looking to start a new streak tomorrow night against the Giants, with Stephen Strasburg facing All-Star right-hander Matt Cain in the flashiest pitching matchup of the rookie’s young career.

As for Atilano, it remains to be seen if the right-hander’s loss was also the last start he’ll make in the majors for a while. It was his last outing of the first half, and the Nationals could send him back to the minors before the second half of the season. They wouldn’t need a fifth starter until July 20, so they’d have time for one of their injured pitchers to get healthy enough to take the spot.

But that remains to be seen. On Thursday, Atilano hurt himself with pitches up in the zone, including two that got blasted for homers by Chris Denorfia (who had one major-league homer - hit on Wednesday night) and Latos (who hit his first big-league homer).

“My breaking stuff wasn’t working tonight,” Atilano said. “That’s why I got hit a little bit hard. It’s tough with those pitches that weren’t working.”

The good news for the Nationals is, according to Riggleman’s oft-repeated motto, they’ve got their best chance to get momentum back tomorrow with Strasburg on the mound, even though Cain will give them another challenge.

They’ll hope Strasburg can return to them what Latos and Atilano took away.

“We’ve played well the last five, six, seven games,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s not easy to win. We just need to keep winning series, and we’ll be alright.”