Preview: Rookie Caleb Smith looking for another strong start as Marlins visit Padres

TV: FOX Sports Florida

TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 3:30 p.m.

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SAN DIEGO — Opportunity is tapping ever so lightly for the San Diego Padres as they return home to Petco Park on Monday afternoon from a respectable 5-5 road trip.

Despite losing two of three weekend games to the Dodgers in Los Angeles, the Padres (22-32) are only 6.5 games out of the lead in the National League West a third of the way through the season.

And they open the homestand with seven straight games against the only two teams in the National League with worse records.

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The first four against the Miami Marlins (19-33) starting Monday and the next three against the Cincinnati Reds (19-35).

After 54 games, the Padres have played only two teams with losing records: the San Francisco Giants and the Dodgers.

But this opportunity faces a major hurdle. The Padres are only 9-17 at Petco Park this season while going 13-15 away from San Diego. Those totals include winning two of three from the Dodgers in Mexico that were considered Padres home games.

While the Marlins are already double digits in games off the pace in the National League East, the Padres only face a single-digit deficit because of injuries for other teams in the National League West.

“You want to be in the hunt, you want to be in the thick of it,” Padres manager Andy Green said recently of the division race. “We haven’t necessarily done much to put ourselves there. We played a little bit more solid baseball in May (12-12 thus far). After April, the division has sort of come back to us a little bit. So we’re thrilled to be there, but that’s not where the focus is at all.

“There’s been a lot of injuries in our division. I don’t think any team in this division can say they haven’t lost a huge piece at some point in time.”

Monday’s pitching matchup features left-handed rookies who will be facing the other team for the first time.

Caleb Smith (3-5, 3.83 ERA) will be making his 11th start for the Marlins. He last pitched in a 5-1 win over the New York Mets on Tuesday when he allowed one run and three hits in 6 2/3 innings.

“It’s been a pretty simple formula for him,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “Obviously, it’s not that easy. But when he’s throwing strikes, he’s been pretty effective. And the only time he’s really gotten in trouble has been when he’s kind of been all around the zone and walking people.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound 26-year-old was a 14th-round pick in the 2013 draft out of Sam Houston State. He has worked 49 1/3 innings this season and allowed 21 runs, 35 hits and 25 walks with 65 strikeouts. He has a 1.216 WHIP.

In 19 career major league appearances, opponents have hit .221 against Smith, who has given up eight homers in 253 at-bats.

Starting for the Padres will be 22-year-old Eric Lauer, who has a 1-2 record and a 6.67 ERA in six starts since being promoted from Triple-A El Paso on April 24. The 6-3, 227-pound product of Kent State was one of three first-round picks (25th overall) that the Padres had in the 2016 draft.

Lauer has given up 21 runs (20 earned), 39 hits and 13 walks with 25 strikeouts in 27 innings.

While Smith’s fastball tops out at 97 mph, his forte is a three-pitch mix with a slider and change-up. His fastball plays best at below 95.

Lauer depends on hitting his spots with his low-90s fastball, which is part of a four-pitch mix. He held Washington to one run, six hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in six innings in his most recent outing on Tuesday.

“I thought hands down it was his best outing,” Green said. “I’m really encouraged.”