The Pittsburgh Pirates exit the All-Star break in first place for the first time in 15 years.
It's been significantly longer since the last time a pitcher started three consecutive major league games, something Milwaukee's Zack Greinke will achieve in the Brewers' second-half opener.
The Pirates look to continue their march toward a division title Friday night when they open a three-game set against Greinke at Miller Park.
Pittsburgh (48-37) is in the midst of a North American professional sports record of 19 consecutive losing seasons, but there's reason to believe that ugly streak could be coming to an end. The Pirates are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 1992 - the year of their last playoff berth - and are in first place at the break for the first time since '97.
The Pirates, one game ahead of second-place Cincinnati, are also hoping to avoid a similar late-season free fall as last year, when they were atop the Central on July 25, before finishing 24 games out.
Two of the biggest reasons Pittsburgh is piling up wins is the play of All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and McDonald (9-3, 2.37 ERA).
McCutchen - one of the top candidates for league MVP - leads the majors in batting at .362, is tied for fourth in the NL in homers with 18 and is tied for third in the league in RBIs with 60.
McCutchen is 2 for 13 lifetime against Greinke, who will become the first pitcher to start three consecutive games since Red Faber for the Chicago White Sox in 1917. Greinke's name will be forever linked to this baseball oddity after he was ejected from his start Saturday following a four-pitch outing and coming back the next day. Against Houston on Sunday, the right-hander allowed three runs and five hits in three innings of a 10-inning, 5-3 win.
Greinke went 3-1 despite a 5.76 ERA in four starts against the Pirates last season.
Pittsburgh has won seven of McDonald's last eight starts with the right-hander earning the victory in the last four. McDonald, who despite ranking third in the NL in ERA was bypassed for the All-Star game, put together one of his best performances of the season in his final outing before the break, yielding a run and four hits while striking out 10 in seven innings of a 3-1 victory over San Francisco on July 7.
He gave up three runs and four hits with eight strikeouts over six innings in a 6-5 win in Milwaukee on June 3, helping the Pirates take two of three in their lone series of the season.
While Pittsburgh is brimming with confidence, the Brewers (40-45) need to go on quite a surge to repeat as division champs. They're eight games behind Pittsburgh, but could have the advantage Friday considering they've won 21 of Greinke's 22 regular-season starts at Miller Park.
The Brewers have nine games after the All-Star break to determine whether they will be buyers or sellers before the July 31 trade deadline.
There were few signs during the first half that Milwaukee would get into contending mode. Early injuries, underachieving play and a combustible bullpen left the Brewers (40-45) foundering for the most part, unable to get back to .500, one year after they roared to the NL Central crown with a 96-victory season.
But general manager Doug Melvin doesn't want to pull the plug too soon, especially with nobody running away and hiding in the NL Central, not to mention the availability of two wild-card berths. So Melvin will see how the Brewers fare in those nine games after the break -- six at home against Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and three on the road in Cincinnati.
Those teams happen to be the three clubs ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central, so the Brewers will have a chance to close in on all three without outside help. If they go 8-1 or 7-2 and show signs of getting back in the division race, Melvin might even look to acquire help.
But should the Brewers continue their first-half pattern of being unable to generate much forward momentum, Melvin probably will pull the plug and start entertaining offers for ace right-hander Zack Greinke, who can be a free agent after the season and has shown no inclination to this point of accepting a contract extension.
Many clubs already are scouting Greinke, and Melvin should get brisk business on the pitcher if he makes him available. The Brewers surrendered an extensive package of young players to Kansas City to acquire Greinke before the 2011 season and would benefit by getting some back by dealing him.
The Brewers have other pitchers approaching free agency who earlier figured to be attractive to teams seeking that commodity. However, starter Shaun Marcum has been sidelined by elbow problems that probably make him untradeable at this point. Left-hander Randy Wolf and reliever Francisco Rodriguez have lessened their trade value with poor performances throughout the season.
It's the last chance for the Brewers to act like a contender. Otherwise, Melvin will be facing some very important decisions as his team regroups.
RHP Zack Greinke started for the second consecutive game Sunday after being ejected Saturday after throwing only four pitches in Houston. He was tossed by umpire Sam Holbrook after spiking a ball in anger over not covering first base in time to get an out. The Brewers also announced that Greinke would start their first game after the All-Star break Friday against Pittsburgh. The last pitcher to start three consecutive games for his team in the same season occurred in 1917, when the White Sox's Red Faber opened both games of a Sept. 3 doubleheader, then started again the next day.
INF Taylor Green was optioned to Class AAA Nashville after Sunday's game in Houston. The Brewers will replace him on their roster before they begin play in the second half Friday at home against Pittsburgh. Green had hit .198 in 44 games for Milwaukee.
OF Norichika Aoki extended his hitting streak to 15 games Sunday by going 1-for-3 with two walks. He is batting .396 during the streak to boost his overall average to .301.
CF Carlos Gomez struck out four times Saturday against Houston before being removed for a pinch hitter. Gomez's only other four-strikeout game was on April 22, 2008, for Minnesota against Oakland. He struck out again Sunday as a pinch hitter.
LHP Randy Wolf made a rare relief appearance Saturday in Houston after RHP Zack Greinke was ejected two batters into the game and the Brewers had to cover nine innings out of the bullpen. Wolf was happy to get some work with so many days before his next start after the All-Star break. He tossed two innings, yielding three hits and one run.
RHP John Axford ran into more trouble in the ninth inning Sunday but stranded runners at second and third to record his 15th save in the Brewers' 5-3 victory at Houston. Axford blew five saves in the first half and compiled a 4.72 ERA.
OF Caleb Gindl is finally starting to swing the bat like he can at Class AAA Nashville. Entering Sunday, Gindl was batting .375 (15-for-40) over his past 11 games, raising his overall average to .242 after a horrible start. Considered one of the top outfield prospects in the system, Gindl, 23, had a slow start at Nashville last season, too, before catching fire to finish with a .307 average, 15 homers and 60 RBI in 126 games.
By The Numbers:
.199—Batting average for 2B Rickie Weeks, the highest it has been since the end of April.
Quote To Note:
"I think when he gets on the mound, that same confidence that he had last year is not there now. It can't be. But he's still very confident in what he does. He still believes that when he comes out there and there's a save situation, he's going to get the job done."
—Manager Ron Roenicke, on RH closer John Axford, who blew five saves in the first half after blowing only two all of last season.