SAN DIEGO -- Eric Stults doesn't throw particularly hard, and his paychecks don't break the bank. He doesn't sit atop the Padres' rotation, but the left-hander has become their unquestioned ace.
Stults pitched like one on Friday night, throwing a two-hitter in a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in front of 23,364 at Petco Park.
It was the Padres' first complete game of the season and the third of Stults' career. It elevates the Padres to 33-34 -- a far cry from their 5-15 start -- and leaves them four games behind the National League West-leading D-backs.
The Padres wouldn't be in that position without Stults. He's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or less in five of his last six starts.
Friday's effort was his best yet. Gerardo Parra led of the game with a double, and Arizona didn't get another hit until the ninth inning.
"That was a masterful performance," Padres manager Bud Black said. "They didn't threaten because Eric was outstanding. What you saw was a mix of pitches, any of which can be thrown for a strike. When Eric can do that, he's so tough. He can throw a fastball in the low 90s and a curve in the mid-60s. When you don't know what's coming, that's incredibly difficult to deal with."
Stults, who tied a club record with six assists for a pitcher in a nine-inning game, can drive a hitter mad when he throws all four of his pitches for strikes. He thew breaking balls behind in the count and well-located fastballs while ahead, disrupting the D-backs' timing throughout the night. That's been a constant for more than a month. Since May 2, Stults has a 2.26 ERA.
"For a guy like me, who pitches to contact, I have to be able to throw all four pitches well," Stults said. "Lately, I've been able to throw any pitch in any count, and I've been able to throw them all for strikes.
"Not knowing what pitch I'm going to throw next makes it tough on a hitter. I'm not a pitcher who is going to blow fastballs by people, so I try to keep hitters off-balance. We want them guessing, and we want them to guess wrong."
The Padres knew Arizona starter Trevor Cahill would throw fastballs, and they still weren't hitting them well. Cahill allowed two runs and had a career-high 10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. He pitched well early on but broke down a bit in the sixth.
Cahill walked Alexi Amarista, hit Chase Headley with a pitch and gave up an infield hit to Carlos Quentin that loaded the bases with no outs.
He struck out the next two batters before Logan Forsythe came through in the clutch. The second baseman's two-run single gave the Padres the lead and chased Cahill from the game.
"It's always a great feeling when you can give your team a spark and help reward a good pitching performance," Forsythe said. "That was a big moment in the game, and I'm glad I was able to put the ball in play and drive home a couple runs.
"I battled through a couple good pitches and was able to do something with a ball left up in the zone."
Stults pitched with a deficit most of the game after Arizona got to him in the first. The D-backs opened the scoring with Cody Ross' sacrifice fly, which drove Parra home.
Until Willie Bloomquist's single in the ninth inning, just four Arizona balls left the infield.
The Padres, who have won four straight and seven of their last nine, were thrilled to secure the first game in a series they consider crucial.
"It's an exciting time for us," Stults said. "We had a good May and a good start to June. This is a big series for us, and winning it would be huge. We have some momentum and we're gaining confidence with win. We need to keep this good thing going."
Scott Bair is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.