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Cain strikes out six over eight innings

All summer long, coaches, players and executives downplay what many consider key series.

But now Major League Baseball is in its final month. Each pitch, swing and play is magnified, and every game nears a "do-or-die" level of importance for those looking to clinch a playoff berth.

No weekend series better exemplifies that excitement than the three-game set between the first-place D-backs and second-place Giants. The reigning World Series champions -- who sit six games behind Arizona in the National League West -- hope to somehow find enough offense to overtake the D-backs and return to the postseason.

"Well, we're pushing a big rock uphill. We know that," said Giants general manager Brian Sabean. "We're running out of games. We've all been involved in seasons that have turned on a dime. Ninety-eight's an example. Last year was an example. You never know what's going to happen during the last month of the season. Strange things happen.

"There's still hope, and there's still effort. But we are down a bit. Short of a winning streak, we're going to have to win as many series or more series than they do, and that might still not be enough because of the hole we've dug."

Matt Cain takes the hill for the Giants in Friday's opener against Arizona's Joe Saunders, but that isn't the story for San Francisco. As he has done throughout his career, Cain has continued to be Mr. Reliable, working seven or more innings in four of his last five starts.

What -- if anything -- the Giants' lineup can scrounge up for Cain is the bigger question for San Francisco. The Giants have lost 21 of their past 31, mostly because of their lackluster offense. The Giants hit only .235, got on base at less than a .300 clip and slugged a meager .348 while averaging 2.7 runs per game in August.

As for the D-backs, a series victory -- or even better, a sweep -- could bury the Giants in the division race once and for all. However, center fielder Chris Young noted that the club can't think ahead and must instead focus on each daily task.

"You just have to keep playing until you get to that point when you clinch. No matter if you're beating the Giants or if you're beating the Padres or Rockies," Young said. "The last thing we want to do is put too much pressure on ourselves for any games coming up."

Nevertheless, with a six-game lead in the division, Arizona can afford to feel at least somewhat loose as it travels to San Francisco.

"I'm excited," Young said. "It's going to be fun -- every time we've played the Giants this year, it's been fun. It's fun playing there. There's always a lot of energy in the air, especially when we go to [San Francisco]. It's always a sold-out game."

D-backs: Saunders on the hill
• Saunders takes the AT&T Park mound for the first time in his career. The left-hander comes off an impressive outing against the Padres in which he allowed one unearned run in seven innings. He has struggled against San Francisco this season, however, losing both of his starts while allowing a combined eight runs in 13 2/3 innings.

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the D-backs have not allowed more than one run in any of their past 63 innings, which set a new club record.

Giants: Rowand's tenure ends
• The Giants designated outfielder Aaron Rowand for assignment Wednesday. Rowand, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Giants in 2008, has one more year and roughly $14 million remaining on his contract. He hit .253 with with 43 homers and 189 RBIs in 509 games with the Giants.

Rowand wasn't the only veteran let go Wednesday, as San Francisco also designated infielder Miguel Tejada for assignment. Tejada signed a one-year deal with the Giants this offseason and hit .239 with a .270 on-base percentage.

The moves were made to make room for Pat Burrell (right mid foot strain), who was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list, and infielder Brett Pill, whose contract was purchased from Triple-A Fresno. Pill, 27, hit .312 with 25 homers and 107 RBIs for the Grizzlies while playing first and second base.

Worth noting
• The Giants finished August with a .180 average with runners in scoring position.

• The Giants are only 11-14 at AT&T Park since the All-Star break.

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