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Rockies Begin A Crucial Series With The Padres As The NL West Race Tightens

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(Sports Network) - What had been a two-team battle for first place in the National League West has become a three-man race due to another September surge by the Colorado Rockies. The 2009 postseason participants have an opportunity to further close the gap in the standings when they host the co-division leading Padres tonight in the opener of a pivotal three-game series from Coors Field.

Colorado has thrust itself back into contention in the NL West by virtue of a 10-game winning streak that was extended with Sunday's 4-2 triumph over visiting Arizona. The tear, which is one game shy of a franchise record that last occurred from June 4-14, 2009, has put the Rockies just 1 1/2 games behind both the Padres and San Francisco for the top spot.

The Rockies, now 17-4 since August 22 and winners of seven straight and 19 of their past 23 contests at home, may be able to gain some more ground if they can duplicate their previous performances against the Padres this season. Colorado has gone 11-4 versus slumping San Diego thus far in 2010 and taken four of six meetings between the teams at Coors Field, where Jim Tracy's squad has amassed an excellent 50-22 record this year.

Jason Giambi kept the Rockies rolling on Sunday, as the veteran first baseman belted a pinch-hit two-run homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth to provide the winning margin. The deciding blast, Giambi's eighth career walkoff hit, came two batters after Jonathan Herrera had reached base on a Diamondbacks' error.

"Jim Tracy uses me in great situations where I can be successful, where I'm going to get a pitch to hit," said Giambi afterward. "Luckily, I've been coming through. I'm just grateful for the opportunity."

Colorado also received excellent work from its bullpen in Sunday's verdict, with five relievers combining for five scoreless innings upon taking over for starter Jhoulys Chacin. Though both of Chacin's runs allowed were unearned, the rookie walked four batters and labored through 84 pitches before being removed after four innings.

While the Rockies, who won 10 of their first 11 September tilts last year to claim the NL Wild Card and went 14-1 over their final 15 regular-season tilts of 2007 to also earn a playoff spot, have been sensational as of late, the Padres have struggled mightily down the stretch.

San Diego owned a seemingly-comfortable 6 1/2-game lead on second-place San Francisco in the NL West on August 25, but proceeded to lose 10 straight contests to enable both the Giants and Rockies to inch closer. The Padres briefly bounced back with a three-game home sweep over fading Los Angeles from Sept. 6-8, but then dropped three of four bouts with San Francisco this past weekend to create a first-place tie.

The Giants drew even in the standings with Sunday's 6-1 victory, in which ace Tim Lincecum threw seven effective innings and added a two-run single at the plate.

San Francisco also got the best of Padres standout Mat Latos (14-6), who entered the matchup on a major league-record streak of 15 straight starts of allowing two or less runs while working at least five innings. That streak came to an end after the talented righty was tagged for five runs on seven hits before exiting after four innings and his team down 5-0.

The Padres didn't do much offensively as well on the afternoon, as eight of their nine hits were singles and the club struck out 11 times while stranding nine men on base.

"We're not scoring enough runs and we're not making some pitches when we need to," said manager Bud Black. "That's what we have to do, we have to get back to making the pitches and making the plays."

A repeat effort from youngster Cory Luebke would go a long way towards getting the Padres back on track. Making his second major league start, the rookie yielded a mere two hits and struck out seven over six shutout innings to lead the way in a 4-0 shutout of the Dodgers on Wednesday.

Luebke's big league debut came against the Rockies in San Diego on September 3 and didn't go as well. The left-hander served up two-run homers to both Giambi and Troy Tulowitzki in a five-inning stint and came out on the wrong end of a 4-3 decision.

Colorado began its current streak by sweeping that three-game series, which took place from Sept. 3-5.

Jeff Francis gets the call for the Rockies tonight and will be making his first start in the majors since August 11. The oft-injured southpaw was placed on the disabled list following that game due to soreness in his left shoulder.

Francis, who's expected to be on a 60-70 pitch limit tonight, threw six innings in his most recent appearance and gave up two runs in a no-decision against the New York Mets. In 16 starts so far this season, the native Canadian is 4-4 with a 4.56 ERA.

The one-time 17-game winner hasn't fared well when facing the Padres over his career, having produced a lackluster 5-11 record and 5.65 ERA in 20 career starts against tonight's foe. In two prior encounters with San Diego this season, Francis has been rocked for a total of 11 runs and 15 hits in eight innings while taking a loss and a no-decision.