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Cubs Can Help Choose NL West Winner

(Sports Network) - The San Diego Padres enter the final week of the regular season clinging to one of two available playoff berths. With a matchup against one of baseball's hottest pitchers on tap, the team certainly cannot afford a letdown tonight.

The surprising Padres begin an important four-game series this evening with the visiting Chicago Cubs, who'll be sending out the resurgent Carlos Zambrano in the opener.

San Diego surrendered the lead in the topsy-turvy National League West to San Francisco after yesterday's 12-2 loss to NL Central-leading Cincinnati. With the Giants defeating Colorado on Sunday, the Padres now trail their in-state rival by a half-game for first place.

The Padres do presently own a half-game edge on Atlanta for the NL Wild Card with seven left to play. The Braves will visit Florida for a three-game series beginning tonight.

Following this set with the Cubs, San Diego will visit San Francisco for three pivotal contests that could decide the NL West champion.

But first, the Padres will have to bounce back from yesterday's lopsided defeat and get ready for Zambrano, who's regained his All-Star form after struggling early on in a roller-coaster season. Since being placed back in Chicago's rotation in early August, the fiery Venenzuelan has amassed a 6-0 record and a stellar 1.42 ERA in nine starts and allowed two runs or less on each occasion.

Zambrano was outstanding once again in last Tuesday's battle with the Giants at Wrigley Field, firing six shutout innings and striking out eight batters despite coming away with a no-decision. The effort lowered his season ERA to a respectable 3.56 in 34 appearances, 18 of which have been starts.

The right-hander faced the Padres in Chicago back on August 19 and received a no-decision that day as well. Though he walked six batters in six innings, Zambrano held San Diego to a run on four hits.

The 29-year-old sports an impressive 6-2 record and a 2.61 ERA in 11 career starts against the Padres and has good numbers at Petco Park as well, having gone 2-1 with a 2.28 ERA in four previous visits to the venue.

San Diego mustered only six hits in Sunday's setback to the Reds, who belted three homers and six extra-base hits to avoid a sweep of the three-game series between possible playoff participants.

"Our offense came alive," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker remarked afterward.

Padres starter Clayton Richard (13-9) served up two of the long balls and was tagged for six runs in five innings of work. Adrian Gonzalez and Yorvit Torrealba both homered for San Diego, which had won four of its last five coming in.

The Padres will be hoping to sustain their recent success against Chicago and solidify their postseason chances. San Diego has prevailed in nine of its last 10 clashes with the Cubs and swept a four-game series between the teams at Wrigley Field from August 16-19. In addition, Chicago has lost in five straight visits to Petco Park.

The Cubs have been a different team since the last time they encountered the Padres, however. Since interim manager Mike Quade replaced the retiring Lou Piniella on August 23, Chicago has the third-best record in the NL at 19-10.

Chicago has lost three of its last four, however, and couldn't overcome a big early deficit in an 8-7 setback to the rival St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday.

The Cubs trailed 8-0 after 4 1/2 innings, but scored twice in the bottom of the fifth and three more times in the sixth to close the gap. A Xavier Nady RBI single and Kosuke Fukudome's sacrifice fly in the seventh brought Chicago within 8-7, but the club couldn't get any closer.

Fukudome and Brad Snyder each knocked in two runs for the Cubs, while Blake DeWitt went 2-for-4 with a pair of runs scored in the loss.

Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija (2-2) had a rough afternoon, with the former Notre Dame football star rocked for eight runs on seven hits and issuing an unhealthy seven walks before being lifted after 4 1/3 innings.

The Cubs will take their swings tonight off Tim Stauffer, with the versatile swingman set to make his fifth start since joining San Diego's rotation earlier this month. The ex-University of Richmond standout has done well since making the switch, having posted a 2-1 record with a 2.57 ERA and yielding one run or less in three of those four assignments.

Stauffer is coming off a strong six-inning stint at Los Angeles this past Wednesday in which he held the Dodgers to one run on three hits to help the Padres notch a big 3-1 win. In his most recent Petco Park appearance, the right-hander tossed six shutout frames to defeat the division-leading Giants on September 11.

The 28-year-old lost his only career start against Chicago, which took place in Stauffer's rookie season in 2005, after allowing four runs and seven hits in five innings.