By JON PALMIERI
(AP) -- The Cincinnati Reds believed they were getting a pitcher with the ability to dominate when they acquired Mat Latos in the offseason.
They may have felt some remorse after his first few starts but probably not anymore.
Coming off his first overpowering outing with his new team, Latos looks to help the Reds avoid a fifth loss in six games to the Washington Nationals on Saturday night.
Cincinnati (16-15) paid a steep price in acquiring Latos from San Diego in December, sending starting pitcher Edinson Volquez and three highly regarded prospects to the Padres.
While trading prospects is always a gamble, the Reds felt they were finally filling the role of No. 1 starter - something the team has lacked for years.
Latos struck out 185 in 194 innings last year and his 9-14 record was more indicative of San Diego's offense than his pitching ability. He was 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 184 2-3 innings in 2010, finishing eighth in the NL Cy Young voting.
The right-hander looked nothing like an ace in his first three starts with the Reds, going 0-2 with an 8.22 ERA. He's been far better his past three outings, winning two decisions with a 2.33 ERA.
Latos (2-2, 4.93) was superb in a 5-0 victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday, striking out a career-high 11 and pitching two-hit ball over six innings despite dealing with a queasy stomach.
"Sometimes when guys don't feel quite right, a lot of times they throw their best games," manager Dusty Baker said. "You settle down, you're concentrating, you try not to overthrow because you don't have the strength to do so."
He's 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts against the Nationals, limiting them to two runs over five innings on April 12 before leaving without a decision.
Although Washington (20-12) leads the NL East, that's due largely to stellar pitching and not an offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in runs, batting average and slugging percentage. The Nationals, however, had no such problems in Friday's series opener, matching a season high for runs in a 7-3 victory.
"The hitting was unbelievable," winning pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "The defense was incredible. The bullpen showed up and came through for me again."
Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa - both batting under .200 before Friday - each hit two-run homers to help Washington improve to 4-1 against Cincinnati. Nationals starters have a 1.36 ERA with one homer allowed in those five games.
Washington could be without rookie outfielder Bryce Harper for the next two games. The 19-year-old went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts Friday and took a frustrated whack at one of the walls in the tunnel after one of the outs.
Manager Davey Johnson said the barrel of the bat bounced off the wall and hit Harper next to the left eye, causing a gash and a welt. He stayed in the game with it bandaged, but was sent for treatment afterward because it was bleeding.
"He probably needs a stitch or two in it, so he'll be down for a couple of days," Johnson said.
The Reds lost the opener of their longest stretch of games this season without a day off - 20 games in 20 days.
Washington scored two less runs Friday than it has in Jordan Zimmermann's six starts this season. Zimmermann (1-3, 2.29 ERA) received one or no runs for the fifth time in Sunday's 9-3 loss to Philadelphia as his run support average dropped to 2.06 - among the worst in the league.
The right-hander did record another quality start, allowing three runs and seven hits over six-plus innings while matching a career high with four walks. He had not walked more than two in 30 straight outings.
Zimmermann is 1-0 with a 2.12 ERA in three starts versus Cincinnati.
Updated May 12, 2012