The Pittsburgh Pirates' push for their first playoff appearance in 20 years has slowed considerably.
Given the Pirates' recent history against the Milwaukee Brewers, it's far from a guarantee that will change over the weekend.
Exactly one year after their last meeting at PNC Park, Pittsburgh will try to end a three-game losing streak Friday night when the Brewers go for their fourth win in a row.
Back from a 2-4 trip, the Pirates (67-57) open a six-game homestand with 15 losses in 24 games. They've fallen to third in the NL Central and are in a tight battle with Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles in the wild-card race.
Facing the Brewers, who have lost 14 of 15 on the road, could help.
The Brewers, though, have held a significant edge in this divisional matchup since 2008, winning 51 of 68 after splitting six games at Miller Park this season.
Starting Friday, these teams will play nine times in 28 days, including three more in Pittsburgh from Sept. 18-20.
Friday's scheduled starter Mike Fiers (6-6, 2.90 ERA) will get his second look at the Pirates after giving up four runs over five innings in a 6-5 loss June 3.
The rookie right-hander needs a bounce-back performance after posting a 15.43 ERA while losing his last two starts. Fiers had a 1.33 ERA while winning his previous three outings.
Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez (8-12, 4.00), will try to avoid losing a career-high fourth consecutive start. The left-hander is 1-3 with a 5.06 ERA in five appearances since being acquired from Houston on July 24. He threw two innings out of the bullpen Sunday in a 6-3, 19-inning win over the Cardinals.
Rodriguez is 0-6 with a 5.98 ERA in seven starts since his last win, 6-3 over Milwaukee on July 7.
John Axford realized he was at fault for losing his job as the Brewers' closer earlier in the season. He failed too many times -- he had eight blown saves and seven losses.
But Axford knew he had the talent to do the job and wanted another chance. So he took advantage of manager Ron Roenicke's open-door policy and requested a meeting a week or so ago to discuss the situation.
Axford told Roenicke he thought he was ready to return to closing games, and the manager agreed. Axford was given opportunities to save the last two games of a three-game sweep over the Cubs and was successful both times.
"His fastball was outstanding again; good location on it," said Roenicke, who had made it clear he wanted to get Axford back in the closer's role at some point. "He's in a place where he should be."
Axford said he is grateful that Roenicke agreed it was time to get another chance to close and didn't take the new chance lightly.
"It means a lot, it really does," said Axford. "With the conversations, it was trying to get my confidence back and build things back to where I wanted to be.
"The reaffirming conversation I had with Ron about a week ago, maybe that's exactly what I needed, something myself to say, 'This is me and this is what I want to do, and I should be there.'
"Maybe that was the kind of the confirmation that I needed."
In essence, the Brewers are back to their original setup in the late innings out of the bullpen. Francisco Rodriguez, who also pitched his way out of the eighth-inning role, then later interim closer as Axford's replacement, has recovered his previous form with five consecutive hitless outings.
RHP Shaun Marcum returns to the rotation Saturday in Pittsburgh after a two-month absence while recovering from an elbow issue. The Brewers have been going with eight pitchers in the bullpen and one of those will be sent down when Marcum is activated, giving the team a full bench again.
RHP Yovani Gallardo revealed Wednesday that it was his mother, Eulalia, who had been ill back in Texas when he left the club after his previous start. Gallardo said his mother was doing better, and he returned to win his fifth consecutive game in a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Gallardo has a 2.02 ERA over those five games.
INF Jeff Bianchi, called up Wednesday from Class AAA Nashville, can't be activated until Saturday. There was some confusion about whether Bianchi had spent the required 10 days in the minors after his last stint with the Brewers because he had replaced RHP Mark Rogers, who was on paternity leave. So Bianchi must wait until Saturday.
LF Ryan Braun took over the National League lead with 70 extra-base hits after collecting a double, triple and home run Wednesday against the Cubs. Braun moved past Brewers 3B Aramis Ramirez, who has 69 extra-base hits, including a league-high 40 doubles.
The Brewers' pitching staff struck out 37 hitters in a three-game sweep of the Cubs, notching double figures (12, 12 and 13) in each game. The Brewers have accumulated 1,055 strikeouts, most in the majors.
By The Numbers:
71—Errors for the Brewers, the third-lowest total in the NL.
Quote To Note:
"I'm on a mission to finish strong. I couldn't continue to do what I was doing."
—RHP Francisco Rodriguez, who pitched his way out of a late inning role earlier in the season with several poor outings but now has a string of five hitless appearances.