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Rockies can't look past finale vs. Nats

Rockies can't look past finale vs. Nats

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the biggest challenge the Rockies face when they take the field vs. the Nationals on Thursday night in the final game of a seven-day road trip will be to keep from looking ahead at their next 10 games on the docket.

Colorado will send right-hander Jason Hammel to the mound to try to sweep the three-game series against Washington, and the key word for everyone will be "focus."

"We can't really look ahead right now," said infielder Ian Stewart. "We need to focus on this series."

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The Rockies already know that the Nationals, record notwithstanding, are not going to be pushovers.

The fact that this a hugely improved team over the one that Colorado swept in three games at Coors Field in early July was made more than evident as the Rockies just barely nipped them on Tuesday and Wednesday nights by scores of 4-3 and 5-4, respectively.

"This is not the same Nationals team that we played at Coors Field," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "Four of their first five hitters are hitting over .300 and can hit the ball out of the ballpark at any given moment."

And indeed, the club that was 25-55 when it came into Colorado on July 6 and left at 25-58 has gone 11-6 in August, including an eight-game win streak, and has been playing over .500 ball since the All-Star break.

"It goes without saying that they have people who can hurt you with the long ball, with guys like Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham," Tracy said. "And they have Nyjer Morgan at the top of the order, a dynamic element like that who's done a tremendous job of getting on base for them."

Morgan, in fact, has gone 10-for-20 in five games against the Rockies since coming over to the club in an early July deal from Pittsburgh.

Tracy also gives credit to Nats interim manager Jim Riggleman, Tracy's former bench coach for several years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who took over at the helm for Washington on July 12.

"I am very familiar with their manager and I can tell you, with no disrespect intended whatsoever to [former manager] Manny Acta, that the guy that is in charge of that club knows what he's doing, big time," Tracy said. "He knows how to manage people, he knows how to manage situations in a game and incorporate his personnel accordingly."

In other words, Tracy is not taking the Nationals lightly and he advises his players to take the same attitude.

"It's a Major League game, and if you put your uniform on in the Major Leagues and take one thing for granted, you'll get whipped," he said. "This team is playing much better baseball."

Tracy and his Rockies know that every game from here on in will be a crucial one, with fewer than seven weeks to play and one of two slots up for grabs in terms of a playoff spot.

Going into Thursday's game, Colorado holds a tenuous one-game lead over San Francisco and a three-game advantage over Florida in the NL Wild Card race, with five teams within five games of the top of that heap.

And it's not just the Wild Card spot at stake. There is also the very real possibility of contending for the NL West title. The top three spots in that division are pretty crowded as the Dodgers held a 3 1/2-game lead over Colorado after Wednesday night.

Once the Rockies return home late on Thursday night, they'll be looking at a homestand featuring four games against the Giants and three more against the Dodgers before turning around and heading to San Francisco for a three-game set to close out August.

Pitching matchup
COL: RHP Jason Hammel (7-7, 4.73 ERA)
Hammel gave up only three runs in a loss to the Marlins on Friday, but constant trouble put his pitch count at 95 after just four innings and gave him a relatively short start. The 26-year-old put at least two runners on in each of his four frames and finished giving up six hits and four walks while throwing just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes. It was the sixth start this season in which Hammel pitched fewer than five innings. The South Carolina native did not talk to reporters after that start, as Tracy said he took a flight out of Miami to deal with a death in his family. Tracy said Hammel knew about the matter before his start and that he was "OK to pitch."

WSH: RHP Garrett Mock (2-4, 5.27 ERA)
In fine form, Mock demonstrated the type of pitcher he is capable of becoming in his start on Friday night against the Reds. Mock pitched six strong innings as the Nationals won, 2-0, at Great American Ball Park. Mock dominated over the first four innings, striking out five batters, and he was able to get out of trouble in his final two frames.

Tidbits
When Brad Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez and Clint Barmes all homered in Tuesday night's 4-3 win against Washington, it marked the second successive game in which that trio had gone deep. ... Closer Huston Street has now converted 23 save opportunities in a row, the longest such streak by an NL reliever in 2009. ... Juan Rincon, on the DL since Aug. 1 with right elbow stiffness, was one of the four pitchers to combine on the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox' 5-0 no-hitter against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. Rincon, who was scheduled to pitch either two innings or 40 pitches, whichever came first, needed just 24 pitches to retire the Redhawks in his outing, 17 for strikes.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FSN

On radio
• KOA 850

Up next
• Friday: Rockies (Aaron Cook, 10-5, 4.31) vs. Giants (Jonathan Sanchez, 5-10, 4.49), 7:10 p.m. MT
• Saturday: Rockies (Jorge De La Rosa, 11-8, 4.58) vs. Giants (Joe Martinez, 3-1, 4.76), 6:10 p.m. MT
• Sunday: Rockies (Ubaldo Jimenez, 11-9, 3.41) vs. Giants (Tim Lincecum, 12-3, 2.37), 1:10 p.m. MT

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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