SAN DIEGO -- Out of the mouths of babes Sunday, 22-year-old Padres pitcher Mat Latos stood in front of his locker and fully embraced the monumental challenge that now awaits himself and the rest of his teammates.

At 6-foot-6, Latos will never be confused for a shrinking violet, not by his stature and not by the unabashed opinions he holds.

"I feel it makes us a little stronger with the ups and the downs," Latos said of the Padres' recent struggles and their ability to hang on to a sliver of first place in this dreary stretch, one that has seen the team drop 13 of its last 17 games.

"You live and you learn. ... This is going to be a tough race. The Giants have got a good ballclub. Colorado's making a nice little push. We need to step our game up a little bit."

It might take more than a little bit, especially after the Giants pulled even with the Padres by winning three of four games at PETCO Park, the latest being a convincing 6-1 victory.

On Monday, the Padres start a 10-game road trip, beginning with three games in Denver against the Rockies, who have won their last 10 games and trail the Padres and the Giants by 1 1/2 games.

"We have just got to keep battling; that's the biggest key. That's going to be a three-team race, whoever plays the best the next 21 days," San Diego veteran second baseman David Eckstein said. "There's actually a spot for two of us."

San Francisco pitcher Tim Lincecum (14-9) got the better of the Padres and of Latos -- with his right arm and even his bat. Latos allowed five runs in four innings. Lincecum flourished, allowing one run on seven hits over seven innings with nine strikeouts.

"You go out there and you hit around Latos like we did, especially when you haven't been able to do much against him, along with the rest of the team -- this series was huge," Lincecum said. "Coming out there in the first inning and scoring two runs off their ace is big. It set the pace."

The five runs allowed by Latos were the most he's allowed in a start since yielding seven runs in 2 2/3 innings of a loss to the Marlins on April 26. Only once thereafter did Latos allow even three runs in a start, and that was June 4 against the Phillies.

Since then, Latos has ranked among the best and most dominant pitchers in the National League, if not all of the Major Leagues. In his last start, Latos set a Major League record with his 15th consecutive start with two or fewer runs.

"That was impressive, to say the least," manager Bud Black said. "He's been as consistant as any player in the National League in that stretch. It's a tribute to him, his maturity and the way he is throwing the ball."

Latos struck out the first two batters he faced Sunday, including throwing a 97 mph pitch past Freddy Sanchez for the second out of the inning. Aubrey Huff then reached base on a tough slider before Buster Posey sent a first-pitch fastball into the porch of seats down the right-field line as the Giants (81-63) took a 2-0 lead.

"With a guy like Latos who pounds the zone and has such good stuff, you're looking for a pitch to hit, because you don't want to get too late in the count with him," Posey said. "He has such good stuff. Again, with a guy like that who has that good of stuff, you want to try to get on him early. The last thing you want is for him to get in a groove."

The Giants added a run in the third inning off Latos (14-6) and pushed home two more in the fourth inning on a two-run single just inside the third-base bag by Lincecum.

"His stuff was good, but they put the good part of the bat on some fastballs," Black said of Latos.

The Padres (80-62) fielded plenty of questions after the game about the series and how a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL West on Aug. 25 has dissolved.

"We're still in the race. We lost 10 in a row and we're still in first place. Whether we're sharing it or not, we lost 10 in a row and we're still in first place," Latos said.

"That right there can make a statement, being that if we just keep playing and we keep winning, if we keep winning the series like we always try to do ... we should have no problem winning the division."

That remains to be seen. For now, the Padres will head to Denver, then St. Louis and Los Angeles for a 10-game stretch that will go a long ways in determining if this team that has led the division for nearly five months can remain in first place.

"It's a great pennant race and we're excited to be in it. We're in a spot where we can have a great finish," Black said. "No one said it was going to be easy."