Rockies Refusing to Blink : Baseball: They take show on road, beat Padres to extend lead over Dodgers to 1 1/2 games.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the ultimate opportunity for the Colorado Rockies to prove they are not simply the high-altitude specialists of Coors Field.

It is the ultimate opportunity to open the eyes of skeptics by proving they can perform at what, in this case, would be see level.

The Rockies began a 10-game trip Monday night with the National League West title at stake.

They began it with a 4-1 victory over the San Diego Padres, opening a 1 1/2-game lead over the idle Dodgers.

They began it with Dante Bichette, their most valuable player award candidate, saying, "I think it's great that we have a chance to win it or lose it on the road. It's a chance to gain the respect that some people haven't been willing to give us. I'm really tired of the Coors Field issue and all those questions. It's a chance to put that behind us."

The Rockies put on the Ritz in the opener of a trip that next takes them to San Francisco for four games and Los Angeles for three.

They improved to 29-34 on the road--compared to 42-26 at Coors Field--as Kevin Ritz gave up only three hits and an unearned run in 7 2/3 innings before Bruce Ruffin got the final four outs.

This is about as good as it gets for a pitching staff that has only one complete game and the league's highest earned-run average of 4.96.

An announced crowd of 10,596 at Jack Murphy Stadium saw the disappointing Padres fall 7 1/2 games behind Colorado and six behind the Dodgers in the wild-card race.

The Houston Astros are one behind the Dodgers in that category.

It has come down to three teams--Colorado, Los Angeles and Houston--vying for two postseason berths.

"There's nothing wrong with the wild card," Colorado Manager Don Baylor said. "It's created some new excitement and kept a lot more teams involved, but any time you have a chance to win a championship. . . . Well, the opportunity doesn't come along that often. We want to win it. We want to go to the playoffs as a winner."

Bret Saberhagen agreed.

"The feeling of accomplishment would be greater and it would mean a lot more in the way of pride for a third-year franchise," Saberhagen said. "We play the first two games at home either way, but we've struggled more against Atlanta. As the division winner we'd play Cincinnati."

The Rockies opened the trip with the momentum of a 7-2 home stand in which they swept three games from the Reds and won two of three from the Braves.

Ritz, 30, sidelined all of 1993 after reconstructive elbow surgery, had not won since July 28. A five-game losing streak had sent him to the bullpen, where he began to regain the form that produced a 9-5 record before the five losses.

He retired 12 Braves in a row during a flawless relief stint last Tuesday, prompting Baylor to accede to Ritz's request to rejoin the rotation.

"I've always believed that any time a player goes to a manager and asks to get back in the lineup he better back it up," Baylor said, "and Kevin did that tonight. He put an exclamation mark on it. He challenged hitters."

Ritz struck out five, walked only one and did not yield a hit between a one-out single by Jody Reed in the first and a two-out single by Phil Plantier in the seventh.

"It feels good to finally get my 10th win, but it's more important to get the trip off to a good start," Ritz said. "We have to stay focused."

The Rockies collected 11 hits, with San Diego starter Joey Hamilton leaving for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. Larry Walker hit his 32nd home run, Bichette drove in his 116th run with a single and Ellis Burks, who also made two spectacular catches in center field, doubled, tripled and scored two runs.

It was a big start to the biggest trip ever for the third-year Rockies, many of whom have found new life through expansion.

Said catcher Joe Girardi of the respect that would fly with a potential pennant: "There'd be a lot of meanings to that flag they'd hang."

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Batting Race

A look at how the battle between the Padres' Tony Gwynn and the Dodgers' Mike Piazza for the National League batting title is shaping up:

Player: Gwynn

AB: 491

H: 178

AVG: .363

(Monday: 0 for 4)

*

Player: Piazza

AB: 397

H: 142

AVG: .358

(Monday: no game)

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