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Francis ready for more time in spotlight

Francis set for more time in spotlight

PHOENIX -- When Jeff Francis reminisces about the hours leading up to his first Major League start, he vividly remembers Rockies manager Clint Hurdle delivering a message to "respect everything, but be in awe of nothing."

Three years later, Francis finds himself preparing to stand on a stage much greater than the one that he stepped upon at Turner Field that evening. It's one that could produce damaging awe. But at the same time, it's one that definitely could allow Francis to gain some widespread deserved respect.

When the Rockies and Diamondbacks begin the National League Championship Series at Chase Field on Thursday night, Francis will find himself thrust further into the national spotlight. Whether he gains further respect will be determined by how he handles his nerves and the task of besting reigning Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb.

"There is a big difference between regular-season and playoff baseball, especially on the road," said Francis, who has been given the assignment of pitching the first NLCS game in Rockies history. "People are yelling at you and the crowds are loud, obviously."

While Diamondbacks fans are going to be roaring while watching their team compete in the NLCS for the first time since their 2001 world championship season, it might be hard for them to be any crueler or intimidating than those Philadelphia fans, who were subdued while watching Francis limit the Phillies to two earned runs and win Game 1 of last week's Division Series in enemy territory.

Obviously, Francis didn't allow the awe of his first career postseason start affect him that afternoon, and the familiarity he has of the Diamondbacks may help relieve tension as he looks to lead the Rockies to an important win in their quest to turn an improbable regular-season finish into the organization's first world championship.

Francis has made 14 career starts against the Diamondbacks and managed to go 7-2 with a 3.54 ERA in those games. In his seven career starts at Chase Field, the 26-year-old Canadian southpaw has gone 4-0 with a 3.24 ERA.

"Maybe I've just gotten a few breaks here," said the humble and soft-spoken Francis, who has actually allowed just one earned run in the past 15 innings -- two starts -- that he's completed in the Diamondbacks' lair.

Unfortunately for Francis, he didn't gain enough breaks when he last faced Webb and the Diamondbacks on Sept. 28 at Coors Field. While he surrendered four earned runs and seven hits in six innings that evening, the reigning Cy Young winner distinguished himself as the only pitcher who has beat the Rockies since Sept. 15.

Without much surprise, Francis' nemesis that evening was Conor Jackson, who delivered a two-run, third-inning homer. In 23 career at-bats against the southpaw, the Diamondbacks first baseman has seven hits, and four of those have been homers.

"It was one of those games where mistakes get magnified," Francis said. "I made a couple of mistakes and ended up losing the game."

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That loss, the only one the Rockies have suffered in their past 18 games, clinched the NL West title for the Diamondbacks. Three days later, Francis and his teammates were celebrating entry into the postseason courtesy of the tiebreaker game they won against the Padres.

While there would once again be opportunity for redemption if the Diamondbacks lose on Thursday, there's no doubt Francis' performance could go a long way toward determining who represents the NL in the World Series.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Fogg and Franklin Morales will serve as the starters for the next three games of this series. While each of them has proven his worth recently, Francis is undoubtedly the ace of this rotation. In just his third full season, he notched 17 wins. He allowed three earned runs or less in seven of his final nine regular-season starts.

"He's matured as a pitcher," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. "You can see confidence-wise earlier this season he's taken it to the next level, and an indication, obviously, is his record and what he means to those guys."

While the Diamondbacks provide Francis a sense of familiarity, pitching on seven days of rest might provide some alarm. In the two starts that he made this year with more than five days of rest, he totaled 10 innings and allowed 13 earned runs.

"I think it's a good thing," Francis said of the long layoff both he and his team have experienced. "I think it's a good time of year to have a few extra days off.

When the Rockies took Francis with the ninth overall selection in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, they believed his left arm was something special. There weren't many that knew much about the success he'd enjoyed during his collegiate career at British Columbia University.

But over the past few seasons as he's improved his changeup and mastered his location, Francis has become recognized as one of the game's top emerging hurlers. Now given this opportunity to pitch on the greatest stage he's ever encountered, he will battle the temptation to be awed and look to gain respect both for himself and his Rockies teammates.

"You dream of [this] your whole life," Francis said. "There were times I just worked. I just prepared myself for it. I left nothing behind. I knew if I put everything I could into it, it would take me as far as it could."

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

{"content":["league_championship_series" ] }
{"content":["league_championship_series" ] }