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Published 1:19 am Friday, July 16, 2010

The Associated Press

CINCINNATI — The Colorado Rockies can’t say they’re a division leader like the Cincinnati Reds as baseball’s second half gets under way, but there was a major difference in the way the teams came into the All-Star break.

The NL’s hottest club in July, the Rockies head into Friday night’s visit to Cincinnati hoping a few days off didn’t slow them down, while the Reds want to believe a four-day break was all they need to snap their four-game slide.

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Cincinnati (49-41) has a slim lead on St. Louis atop the NL Central, but it didn’t go into the break looking like a playoff contender. The Reds closed the first half by dropping a four-game set in Philadelphia, including consecutive 1-0 contests heading into the break.

“Usually my teams are hot around this time,” manager Dusty Baker told the Reds’ official website. “You hate to break when you are playing well, and this time, it comes at a good time that allows us to regroup a little bit.”

The Rockies (49-39) certainly fell under Baker’s hate-to-break category, as they won eight of 10 to open July. Colorado had its six-game winning streak snapped Sunday with a 9-7 loss to San Diego, but cut its deficit behind the Padres from five to two during its 10-game homestand.

The Rockies have averaged seven runs in July largely thanks to outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who hit .409 with five homers to help compensate for the absences of Troy Tulowitzki (wrist) and Todd Helton (back).

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The important part is coming up,” manager Jim Tracy said.

“Both halves are very important. What we’ve accomplished through the first 88 games is putting ourselves in a position to make the second half of the season very exciting.”

While All-Star starter Ubaldo Jimenez has been perhaps the biggest key to the Rockies’ success, the pitcher following him in the rotation has been better since the beginning of June. Jimenez’s ERA has risen from 0.78 through May 31 to 4.63 ever since while Jason Hammel (7-3, 4.08 ERA) has simply improved.

Hammel was 2-3 with a 6.93 ERA on June 1, but he’s 5-0 with a 2.05 ERA since. The right-hander held San Diego to two runs over 6 1-3 innings in a 4-2 win Saturday.

“I think I’m on the cusp of doing something really special,” Hammel said. “I just need to, when I start getting fatigued there in the late innings, try not to do too much.”

Hammel allowed two runs and three hits with eight strikeouts over 7 1-3 innings on Sept. 9 in his only start against the Reds. He left without a decision in the Rockies’ 4-3 home win.

He has reason to be concerned Friday, though, beyond the fact that the Reds lead the NL with 437 runs and a .272 batting average despite having failed to score in 21 straight innings. Hammel’s 6.11 road ERA is nearly three runs higher than at home.

Reds All-Stars Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, however, are a combined 1 for 10 against Hammel. Votto has struck out in all three at-bats.

Cincinnati turns to Bronson Arroyo (9-4, 4.04), who has been very effective lately even though he doesn’t miss many bats. The right-hander gave up a run over eight innings July 7 in a 3-1 win over the Mets, improving to 4-1 with a 2.12 ERA in his last five outings despite striking out only 11.

Arroyo is 1-2 with a 3.89 ERA in six starts versus Colorado. Gonzalez has three hits in five at-bats.