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STATS Senior Writer

Entrenched in baseball’s most intriguing division race, the San Francisco Giants will start one pitcher twice over their final six games.

They probably couldn’t ask for a better candidate than Jonathan Sanchez.

The left-hander has spearheaded San Francisco’s brilliant September pitching with an ERA under 1.00, a standard he’ll look to maintain Tuesday night as he makes his penultimate start in a matchup with the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Giants (88-68) would not be in such a tight race with San Diego if not for their outstanding pitching staff, which has a 1.66 ERA since Sept. 5 to lead the team to 13 wins in 20 games.

San Francisco allowed three runs or fewer in 18 consecutive games before a 10-9, 10-inning loss to Colorado on Saturday. The Giants bounced right back with another outstanding pitching performance Sunday, as Matt Cain held the Rockies scoreless into the eighth inning and San Francisco went on to win 4-2.

Colorado fell 4 1/2 games back of the Giants in the division, essentially leaving San Francisco and San Diego to battle it out over the final week.

“To try to get them set back just a little bit was definitely a momentum-builder for us,” Cain told the Giants’ official website. “It seems like (the Rockies) are always hot in September.”

No one’s been hotter this month than Sanchez (11-9, 3.16 ERA), who has posted a major league-low 0.73 ERA in four September outings and will start San Francisco’s season finale against the Padres on Sunday.

First up is his third start versus Arizona (64-92), and he’ll be trying to rebound from a loss. He allowed two runs – one earned – over 5 2-3 innings at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, but suffered a 2-0 defeat.

“It’s one of those things when you’re not scoring a lot of runs,” Sanchez said. “… But that’s baseball. That’s how it goes.”

The defeat was Sanchez’s first in seven starts.

Sanchez didn’t pitch deep into either start against the Diamondbacks, but Arizona certainly had trouble hitting him. Nine total walks limited him to five innings in each outing, but he struck out 17 and allowed six hits in going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA.

The Diamondbacks have batted .189 against Sanchez in seven starts over the past two seasons, with Sanchez going 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA and 48 strikeouts over 40 1-3 innings. Kelly Johnson, however, is 7 for 12 with five extra-base hits against him lifetime.

Johnson has enjoyed a resurgent year in Arizona after a rough 2009 with Atlanta, and he’s been the team’s offensive catalyst over the past week. The second baseman has batted .440 with three homers and six RBIs as the Diamondbacks have won five of six.

Rodrigo Lopez (7-14, 5.04) looks to help Arizona stay hot as he tries to win a third straight start. The right-hander gave up four runs and five hits – two homers – over five innings of an 8-4 victory over Colorado on Wednesday.

His track record against the Giants suggests he might have trouble earning a victory. Lopez is 0-2 with a 7.46 ERA in five starts versus San Francisco.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, hitting .163 this month, is 4 for 10 with a homer and three doubles against Lopez.

September 27, 2010