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Cubs And Big Z Face Giants In Critical Game For San Francisco

(Sports Network) - With a pivotal series against a division opponent looming, the San Francisco Giants will try to maintain their slim lead atop the National League West when the club begins an important six-game road trip tonight with the first of three straight meetings with the surging Chicago Cubs.

The Giants reclaimed the top spot in the tightly-bunched NL West by virtue of Sunday's 9-2 home triumph over Milwaukee. With San Diego losing to St. Louis that afternoon, San Francisco moved a half-game in front of the Padres for first place, with hard-charging Colorado only 1 1/2 games off the pace in third.

Following this set, the Giants will travel to Coors Field for three games against the Rockies beginning Friday.

After mustering only a single run in losing two straight times to the non- contending Brewers over the weekend, San Francisco's bats finally busted out in Sunday's finale. The Giants scored four times in the first inning on a grand slam from Jose Guillen, who added a two-run single later on in the contest.

"That's big, it just sets a tone for us," winning pitcher Barry Zito said of Guillen's slam. "Guillen comes out, gets a four-spot with the homer. It's my job to treat it as a 0-0 game at that point."

The slumping Zito (9-13) threw six effective innings to end a career-worst nine-decision losing streak that included defeats in each of his last seven starts. The former American League Cy Young Award recipient held the Brewers to two runs and only three hits to notch his first victory since July 16.

Pat Burrell had a three-run homer for San Francisco in Sunday's win, while rookie sensation Buster Posey doubled twice and scored three times.

While Zito has had trouble producing wins in the season's second half, teammate Matt Cain has been awfully tough to beat during the last month. The talented right-hander has gone 3-0 with a 2.97 earned run average over his last five starts, with the Giants prevailing in every one of those outings.

Cain was dominant in his most recent assignment, yielding three hits and no walks through seven shutout innings to defeat the rival Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. He also delivered an important win in his previous start, a September 9 verdict over the Padres in which the former first-round pick allowed three runs and fanned eight over eight strong frames.

The 25-year-old has had past success when taking on the Cubs as well, having amassed a 5-2 record with a 2.61 ERA in nine career matchups. He was touched for three runs in six innings by Chicago in an August 12 clash in San Francisco, but struck out nine batters before exiting.

Although well out of the postseason race, the Cubs could prove to be a difficult foe for both Cain and the Giants tonight. Chicago returns home off a stellar 8-1 road trip in which the team won the last six tests of the trek, and is an impressive 17-7 since interim manager Mike Quade replaced the retiring Lou Piniella behind the bench on August 23.

San Francisco will also be facing a red-hot pitcher in the opener. Since being inserted back into the Cubs rotation in early August, Carlos Zambrano has registered a 6-0 record and a stellar 1.59 ERA in eight starts, with the fiery right-hander having surrendered two runs or less each time.

Zambrano has garnered a victory in each of his last five trips to the mound and is coming off Wednesday's 7-3 decision at St. Louis, where he limited the Cardinals to two runs -- one earned -- and four hits over six innings. The native Venezuelan was even better five days earlier, coming one out away from a three-hit shutout and striking out nine Milwaukee batters to best the Brewers on September 10.

The three-time All-Star's current eight-start unbeaten streak began with a no- decision against the Giants on August 9, though he wasn't particularly sharp that night. Zambrano issued seven walks in five innings, but was able to work out most of his troubles and permit only two runs.

Zambrano has given San Francisco trouble over the years, as he brings a 5-1 record along with a 2.83 ERA in 10 lifetime games (nine starts) against the Giants into tonight's tilt.

Chicago's present season-high win streak has come via three-game road sweeps of St. Louis and Florida, and the club finished off the Marlins with a 13-3 shellacking on Sunday. Welington Castillo led the way with a 2-for-3, three- RBI performance that included the young catcher's first major league home run.

Jeff Baker went 4-for-5 with a pair of RBI for the Cubs, while Bobby Scales and Brad Snyder recorded two-run singles in the rout. Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (2-1) chipped in by throwing six solid innings, with the former Notre Dame football star allowing three runs and just three hits.

"You don't sweep without these guys playing well," said Quade of the young contributors. "Samardzija did a good job and it's fun to watch, it really is."

The Cubs did receive a very scary moment during the game, however, as outfielder Tyler Colvin was struck in the chest by a piece of Castillo's bat while scoring from third base on a ground-rule double in the third inning. The 25-year-old, whose 20 homers is tied for the most among rookies in the majors this season, was rushed to a Miami hospital afterward and received treatment to prevent a collapsed lung.

Colvin will remain hospitalized for a few days for observation and will not play the remainder of the season. Catcher Geovany Soto is also out for the rest of the year after undergoing shoulder surgery on Monday.

The Giants took three of four bouts from the Cubs when these teams met at AT&T Park last month. San Francisco split a two-game series in its lone visit to Wrigley Field last season, but has lost five of its last seven in the Windy City.