Helton's two-run walk-off homer beats Dodgers

DENVER (AP) -- Todd Helton's first 300 homers were nice. No. 301 topped them all.

The Colorado Rockies' star, who finally knows what a pennant race feels like, came through with the most meaningful swing of his stellar career and one of the biggest homers in franchise history Tuesday night.

The Rockies were down to their last strike when Helton hit a no-doubt, two-run homer off Los Angeles closer Takashi Saito in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Colorado a stunning 9-8 victory and a doubleheader sweep of the dejected Dodgers.

"I don't know when I'll come off of that high. Just to be in that moment was unbelievable," said Helton, who sprinted around third base like a little kid being called in for dinner and dived into the pile of jubilant teammates awaiting him at home plate.

"It's one of my favorite moments ever just watching him come around third," teammate Matt Holliday said.

The Rockies won the opener 3-1 behind Jeff Francis, who struck out a career-high 10 batters in his 16th win. The teams played a split doubleheader to make up for a rainout on July 27 at Coors Field, and both clubs looked at it as crucial to their hopes of catching San Diego in the NL wild-card chase. The Dodgers began the day three games behind the Padres and are now 4½ back, same as Colorado.

"That was a tough one for us," Dodgers manager Grady Little said. "I think our playoff chances went out today in Coors Field."

Saito (1-1) had converted 16 straight saves and 39 of 42 chances this season, including all five against the Rockies, who hadn't gotten a hit off him in six combined innings until Holliday punched a single to right with two outs to bring up Helton.

The slugger who has toiled for more than a decade in Denver with nary a sniff of a playoff chase until this year, followed with his fifth career game-ending homer, sending one of Saito's nasty sliders 418 feet into the seats in right-center.

"I went with my strength," Saito said through a translator. "I'm discouraged. I'm disappointed."

Helton has been waiting for a moment like this all his life.

"Oh yeah, just to be in a situation where a game matters," he said. "When you hit a home run and the game doesn't matter, you sort of run the bases and give your teammates high-fives. But when you're in a situation like that, why do you want to try to keep your emotions in? I mean, it's an amazing win for us."

His teammates enjoyed it, too.

"That's as good as it gets for me," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I was happy for Todd, I was happy for us. I've watched Todd play a long time. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him. He's found another gear this month."

Helton is hitting .423 with a .538 on-base percentage, two homers and 10 RBIs in 15 games in September.

Little just looked away when he saw Helton get hold of Saito's last pitch.

"I didn't watch it," he said. "I didn't have to. I knew it was leaving the park."

And taking a little bit more of the Dodgers' playoff hopes with it.

"We'll have to win out and get a lot of help to get in," Little lamented.

Until Helton's big homer, David Wells was in line for the win despite his first shaky outing with the Dodgers. Instead, it went to Ryan Speier (1-1), who pitched a perfect ninth.

Wells looked more like the erratic 44-year-old left-hander that San Diego gave up on than the savvy September starter he was in his first four starts with Los Angeles. He labored through a 31-pitch first inning in which the Rockies batted around and erased a 3-0 deficit with three run-scoring doubles.

Wells also allowed Holliday's 33rd homer, a two-run shot that gave Colorado a 5-4 lead in the fifth. It was his 200th hit this season and the 100th homer of his career.

Little said he's sticking to his plan to pitch Wells on three days' rest at Arizona on Saturday even though the big lefty allowed five earned runs and eight hits over five innings.

So centered on keeping the Rockies' slim playoff hopes alive, Francis didn't realize until after he won the opener that he'd set a career high in strikeouts or a franchise record for wins by a lefty.

Francis (16-8) surpassed Shawn Estes, who had 15 in 2004, and put himself just one win shy of the club record set by Kevin Ritz in 1996 and tied by Pedro Astacio in 1999. Francis' 10 strikeouts were the most by a Rockies pitcher since Jason Jennings fanned 10 Giants on Aug. 28, 2003, a span of 661 games.

Francis outpitched Chad Billingsley (11-5), who lost despite yielding just two earned runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Game notes
Dodgers SS Rafael Furcal left the opener in the sixth with tightness in his lower back and missed the nightcap. ... RHP Esteban Loaiza will start for Los Angeles on Friday night at Arizona.