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Cook returns in heat of Wild Card race

Cook returns in heat of Wild Card race

DENVER -- When the Rockies Opening Day starter Aaron Cook climbs the hill on Friday night for his first appearance in over a month, he'll be returning from a right shoulder strain and immersing himself in the thick of a pennant race, facing a Cardinals team poised to clinch its division and hoping to help his Rockies squad inch closer to punching their own ticket to the post season.

It should be a faintly familiar feeling for Cook, who came back after 11 weeks out of commission with an oblique strain in 2007 to start Game 4 of the World Series with his club down 3-0 against the Red Sox.

"I guess it's kind of similar," Cook said Thursday. "Different injuries and a little less time in between pitching. But for the most part I knew I was going to be able to come back this year. With the oblique, I really didn't know what to expect. This year I felt pretty confident I could come back and be able to execute my pitches."

Cook is not only confident, he's perpetually cool and collected, not letting the anticpation of returning to a big game affect his demeanor, despite having not pitched in a game at any level since Aug. 21.

"I'm not a very excitable person, but I'm looking forward to being out there pitching again, just because it's what I do," Cook said. "Sitting down for a long period of time, you get kind of bored. You just want to get out there and play. So I'm looking forward to getting out there. But in terms of being overly excited or overly anxious, that's not in my personality."

That combination of confidence and composure in any situation is part of what makes manager Jim Tracy comfortable with sending Cook out to face the celebrated Cardinals lineup in the opener of a critical series replete with playoff implications. Having lost a series Colorado thought it could win against San Diego, the St. Louis series looms even larger with Cook's start clearly a moment of consequence.

"Look at where this guy's been," Tracy said. "I'll go as far back as the heroics that he put on display last year in the All-Star Game and the stint that he had there on a huge stage. [Cook pitched three scoreless innings in the extra-inning Midsummer Classic.] What he did in 2007, he was on some huge stages. This stage here is starting to be very significant on a day-in-day-out basis. What better choice could you make than having a guy that has been exposed to all those things?"

The Rockies will have Jose Contreras ready and waiting in the bullpen if they need extended relief for Cook, who is targeted for 60-70 pitches. But the Rockies are eager to find out if Cook is ready to shoulder a load again as one of the staff's most dependable starters.

"It's an opportunity to get a real good look at Aaron Cook against a real good opponent," Tracy said. "How good is his stuff actually at this point in time with the time he's taken off? That makes more sense to me than trying to gauge it with the San Diego Padres. No disrespect meant, but the St. Louis Cardinals do have a few more guys in their lineup offensively that can pose a real problem for you if you don't make really, really good pitches."

Cook dominated the Cardinals when he faced them in early June, holding them to one run on four hits in eight innings, his only flaw coming on a Rick Ankiel solo homer.

"I'll go out and use my sinker and try to keep them off balance," Cook said of facing the Cardinals again to launch the final nine-game push for the playoffs. "I pretty much don't change my game plan, no matter who I'm playing. I make them hit my pitches. If I execute, I usually have a pretty good day."

A good day would certainly beat the "boring" days Cook has spent watching his team from the dugout without being able to contribute. If he can shake off any rust and return to form, it will bode well for the Rockies' remaining chase for the postseason.

But the unflappable sinkerballer is as emphatic as he gets when he stresses that he hasn't suffered from sideline symptoms as he's watched the pennant race from the dugout.

"There hasn't been [any anxiousness to play an active role], because we've had a lead the whole time," Cook said. "There hasn't been any sense of urgency really. All we've got to do is keep going out there and winning, no matter who's out there.

"Everybody asks us if we feel pressure. We really don't, because we're in the lead right now. Everybody else is trying to catch us. We've just got to keep going out there and playing well."

Pitching matchup
COL: RHP Aaron Cook (10-6, 4.47 ERA)
It'll be Cook's first appearance since Aug. 21, when he left a start against the Giants early with soreness in his right shoulder. Tracy is targeting Cook for 60-70 pitches, but he said the pitch count was not a strict limit, and the types of innings he endures will factor in to the length of his outing. Tracy said there is also a chance right-hander Jose Contreras (1-0, 1.86 in two starts with the Rockies, after going 5-13, 5.42 with the White Sox) can pitch in relief. Cook will be looking to re-establish himself as a starter for the Rockies' possible playoff trip.

STL: RHP Chris Carpenter (16-4, 2.34 ERA)
Carpenter won't take anything off over his final two starts, but he's pretty much tuning up at this point. He's on schedule to start the Cardinals' playoff opener, so the most important things are to stay sharp and to stay healthy. There's little question about the first, as he pitched eight shutout innings his last time out. And so far, there's been no question about the second since May. He's also in the running for what could be his second Cy Young Award.

Tidbits
Troy Tulowitzki's 30th home run of the season put him in elite company as just the sixth National League shortstop in history to hit 30 home runs in a single season. Jay Bell holds the record for NL shortstops with 38 home runs in 1999. ... Joe Beimel entered Thursday's game in the seventh inning to face Adrian Gonzalez and retired him for the final out. Beimel has faced Gonzalez more than any other hitter over the course of his career, and the Padres slugger is now 2-for-21 against Beimel. ... Yorvit Torrealba came on to catch in the ninth inning after Jason Giambi pinch-hit for Chris Iannetta. It was Torrealba's 300th career game caught with the Rockies, second most in franchise history behind Jeff Reed's 324 games. ... Mike McCoy entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-runner for Garrett Atkins. After Clint Barmes singled, McCoy swiped third on the front end of a double steal, registering his first big league stolen base.

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

On television
• FSN

On radio
• KOA 850

Up next
• Saturday: Rockies (Ubaldo Jimenez, 14-11, 3.47) vs. Cardinals (Adam Wainwright, 18-8, 2.59), 6:10 p.m. MT
• Sunday: Rockies (Jorge De La Rosa, 15-9, 4.42) vs. Cardinals (Kyle Lohse, 6-8, 4.81), 1:10 p.m. MT
• Monday: Off-day

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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