Francis feeling good, ready for big-game tests

Francis feeling good, ready for big-game tests

PHOENIX -- The Rockies' dream for left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis -- pitching in big games -- could come true once again.

It's what the Rockies had in mind way back in 2002, when they made him a first-round selection. Francis fulfilled the promise in 2007, when he was the clear staff leader through a 17-win regular season. He also won twice in the playoffs.

Francis' star faded with a shoulder injury that marred his 2008 season and cost him all of '09 when the injury required surgery. This year, he has made two trips to the disabled list. Ubaldo Jimenez, whose 19 wins going into Wednesday night match Francis' regular-season and playoff total of '07, has rightfully taken over as staff leader.

Francis will be on a tight pitch count Thursday because it will be just the second start since his return from the latest DL trip, and on a short leash because of the importance of the games.

Still, with the Rockies looking to complete yet another improbable playoff run, it's hard not to look ahead and imagine the possibilities.

Francis, who will start the finale of a three-game set against the D-backs at Chase Field, says he is capable of 90 pitches. Manager Jim Tracy put the figure closer to 75-80, but what matters is how effective Francis (4-5, 4.61 ERA)is and how deep he can get into the game. Then, if the rotation doesn't change, and Tracy has resisted pitching starters on short rest, his following start would come next Tuesday at home against the Dodgers.

Francis' next turn would come up in the regular-season finale, at St. Louis. Wouldn't that be special?

"Could be," Francis said. "Right now, I'm not thinking past this Thursday, because a lot can change in that time. It means the team needs to do some special things for that game to mean something. So it would be kind of silly to think about that right now."

Nonetheless, Francis believes his 2007 performance is reason for the Rockies to trust him in these important games.

"It's experience," Francis said. "I pitched in some big games before for this team. I think they feel comfortable having me out there. I think I can make some big contributions."

However, any look into the future also would be unsettling.

In 2006, Francis signed a four-year, $13.25 million contract with an option for 2011 valued at $7 million. The contract was considered a bargain for the club when it was signed, especially since the option came in Francis' first year of eligibility for free agency. It was definitely that way in 2007, when his salary was $500,000. In fairness, it's because of injury, but this regular season he'll make a maximum of 20 starts while earning $5.75 million. Will a team with a tight payroll pick up the option?

That's a mystery Francis doesn't have time to try to crack.

"I don't know," said Francis, who added he has had no discussions with the club about his future. "That's a big part of my individual affairs. It would be dumb to say I don't think about it. But right now I'm trying to help this team. That's No. 1. That's all I'm going to be focusing on. All that [contract] stuff is really out of my control. I'm going to do all I can on the field, and let that take care of itself."

Francis suffered a setback late in Spring Training and missed the season's first 36 games. He battled for consistency until going back on the DL after his Aug. 11 start. His return, against the Padres Sept. 13, had some bright spots. He gave up five hits and struck out two, but a key at-bat by Miguel Tejada cost him.

Tejada fouled off some of Francis' best pitches to take the matchup to 10 pitches, the last of which Tejada swatted onto the concourse above the left-field stands for a two-run homer. Francis lasted just three innings, and although he gave up just two runs and five hits, wound up with the loss in the eventual 6-4 decision.

"The at-bat that Tejada put on him pretty much shortened the night to begin with and probably cost us an extra inning of pitching," Tracy said. "Now, could he throw 75 or 80? Sure he could. But where does the number end up being, exactly? I can't sit here and say, 'We'll go to 80,' because the other side of the field is going to let us know a lot sooner as to how far he can get into it.

"We're all on a short leash right now. It's that simple. No disrespect meant to any member of our ballclub. The understanding is when you walk out there, 'I've got to be on my game.' I'm not going to sit around with 12 bullpen members sitting down there and let a game get away from us and we're trying to work through it as if we have a six-man bullpen and one of those six is not available."

Francis said he is focused on winning and beyond worrying about his health.

"I was past that when I made the last start. It was a big game and I just happened to be out there contributing to this team," Francis said. "Pitch counts are there, but I feel I'm just a starter going out there to make a start.

"I'll just pitch until they take the ball away."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @harding_at_mlb on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.