An incredible run over the last month has vaulted the Milwaukee Brewers into the thick of the NL wild-card race.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are right there with them, but they've hardly resembled a playoff team lately.
The surging Brewers look to continue their astonishing playoff push in Tuesday night's opener with the Pirates, who might be weary after arriving home this morning.
Milwaukee (74-72) and Pittsburgh (74-72) are both 2 1/2 games back of St. Louis for the NL's second wild-card spot, but have taken different paths to get to this position.
While the Pirates squandered several opportunities to move past the Cardinals, having lost 18 of 25, the Brewers are a major league-best 20-6 since Aug. 19, trimming 10 games off their deficit. They've won five of six over Pittsburgh in this stretch.
To improve its chances, Milwaukee has to play well on a crucial 10-game road trip that begins in Pittsburgh, and continues with stops against NL East-leading Washington and Central-leading Cincinnati.
The Brewers, however, could have the advantage in the opener.
While Milwaukee spent its off day Monday in Pittsburgh, the Pirates split their four-game series in Chicago following a 3-0 win that ended at 1:28 a.m. CDT on Tuesday. The game started Monday at 10:42 p.m. after a rain delay of 3 hours, 37 minutes.
The Brewers have been off since Ryan Braun hit two home runs in Sunday's 3-0 win over the New York Mets. Braun is making a strong push for a second consecutive NL MVP, as he leads the league with 40 homers and is second in RBIs with 103.
Although Braun has been a catalyst to Milwaukee's offense, he's batting .143 with one homer and three RBIs in the last six with Pittsburgh. He is, however, 5 for 12 lifetime against scheduled starter A.J. Burnett (15-7, 3.66 ERA).
The Pirates have lost each of Burnett's last five starts after winning 18 of his first 22. He pitched well enough to win Wednesday in Cincinnati, allowing two runs in six innings, but was saddled with a 2-1 loss. The right-hander has been backed by four total runs of support in his last four starts.
Three starts ago in Milwaukee on Sept. 1, he gave up two runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 3-2 loss.
While Pittsburgh has had no luck behind Burnett lately, the Brewers have won each of Yovani Gallardo's last nine starts, with the righty earning the decision seven times to go with a 2.98 ERA.
Against Atlanta on Wednesday, Gallardo (15-8, 3.72) permitted two runs and four hits in seven innings of an 8-2 victory, the fifth time in six starts he yielded two runs or less.
The one time he didn't pitch well in his last six outings came against the Pirates on Sept. 2, when he gave up seven runs in 4 2-3 innings in a game Milwaukee eventually won 12-8. He had posted a 0.90 ERA in winning his previous five starts in the series.
As far as the Brewers have come over the last month to unexpectedly climb into the race for the second wild card berth in the National League, it almost isn't fair to send them on a 10-game journey to Pittsburgh, Washington and Cincinnati.
But no one ever said Major League baseball is fair.
The Brewers have climbed within 2 1/2 games of St. Louis for that second wild card spot but now must fact their toughest road test of the season. While they are playing those strong teams, the Cards will begin a nine-game stretch that includes six against Houston and three against the Chicago Cubs, the two worst teams in the league.
As daunting as their trip is, the Brewers know they can afford few losses, especially with other teams, such as the Dodgers, Pirates, Phillies and Diamondbacks, in the hunt for that playoff berth.
"The only thing is what other teams are going to do," said manager Ron Roenicke. "If you go 6-4, which probably is a good road trip against those teams, you hope you get a lot of help. That's what you have to go on.
"It is (daunting). You just go out there and play with the same attitude we've been playing with, and we'll see. We know how tough it is."
So the Brewers have their work cut out for them. But, considering where they were a month ago before going on a 20-6 tear that put them two games over .500 (74-72), they'll take their chances.
"We feel really good about ourselves," left fielder Ryan Braun said. "Obviously, we've got our hands full. We're going on the road to play against three really good teams.
"We've just got to continue playing the way we've been playing. It starts with starting pitching. Our bullpen has been phenomenal. We're playing well defensively. We've got a lot of guys swinging the bats well.
"To beat good teams, you have to do all of those things well. We've done that over the last month. Now we have to continue to do it over the next couple of weeks. If we do that, I like our chances."
LF Ryan Braun reached 200 career home runs Sunday in his 867th game in the major leagues. That was quicker than former teammate Prince Fielder, now with Detroit, who got to 200 in his 873rd game. Only four active players got to 200 in fewer games than Braun.
With a 74-72 record, the Brewers are two games over .500 for only the second time this season. The other time was when they were 4-2 on April 11.
RHP Yovani Gallardo was moved ahead of RHP Marco Estrada in the starting rotation to pitch Tuesday in Pittsburgh. That move would put Gallardo in place to pitch the final game of the season on Oct. 3 vs. San Diego, in the event the Brewers need to win that game to reach the playoffs.
RF Norichika Aoki has played a major role in the Brewers' late season surge into contention for an NL wild card berth. Aoki has hit safely in his last seven games and in 17 of his last 19 and has nine multi-hit games over that stretch.
RHP John Axford, who blew eight saves before August and temporarily pitched his way out of the closer's role, has turned around his season—a big reason for the Brewers' turnaround. Axford has converted his last 11 save chances, giving up no runs in 10 of those outings.
By The Numbers:
184—Home runs for the Brewers, most in the NL. They led the league with 185 for the entire 2011 season.
Quote To Note:
"We're all excited about how we're playing and where we are. We talk about where we were three weeks ago. To be at this point, where we know if we continue to play well, we've got a legitimate shot, that's pretty exciting. And it's a pretty quick turnaround."
—Manager Ron Roenicke, whose club has gone 20-6 to pull within 2 1/2 games of the second wild card spot in the NL.