MILWAUKEE — Despite standing with the same record (74-72), both back by 2.5 games in the battle for National League’s second wild-card spot — both led by NL MVP candidates in Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen — the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates couldn’t seem to be any more different heading into Tuesday’s start of a three-game series.
Twelve games under .500 on Aug. 19, the Brewers now are playing better baseball than they have all season. They’ve won 19 of their last 25 games since that date and are, without a doubt, one of baseball’s hottest teams.
The Pirates, meanwhile, are in the midst of a serious tailspin, winning just eight games in that same span. They are, by all accounts, hanging by a thread in the wild-card race, even though their spot in the standings tells a different story.
So as the Brewers begin to embark on what is undoubtedly the most important series of their season, what’s their mindset with the playoffs on the line?
“We feel really good about ourselves,” Brewers 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, and we’ve still got a couple teams that we’re chasing. But we feel really good about where we’re at.”
Of those teams being chased, the Pirates are by the far most volatile.
With the pressure of finishing .500 on their shoulders — a feat they haven’t accomplished in 20 seasons — Pittsburgh is seemingly staring down the edge of a cliff. James McDonald, who at point seemed capable of taking the reins as the Pirates’ ace, was recently moved to the bullpen after horrendous struggles following the All-Star break. Andrew McCutchen, who had seemingly been a shoe-in for the NL MVP after winning Player of the Month honors in June and July, has stumbled in August only to rebound a bit in September. But even he has noted to the media that teams have pitched him differently since midseason.
But more than anything, it’s been the Pirates’ pitching staff that has taken a turn for the worse in August and September. During August, Pittsburgh pitchers, which had been near the top of the heap in ERA for the majority of the season, finished with a poor 4.39 ERA, fourth-worst in the NL. And in September, that number has inflated even further — all the way to 4.65, the third-worst in all of baseball and the outright worst of any team contending for a playoff berth.
The Brewers have done their part to demolish poor pitching in recent series, averaging more than five runs per outing in their last three series. But there’s no denying Milwaukee’s road hasn’t been this tough all season. With such a daunting road trip looming, not only with Pittsburgh but with the NL’s two best teams — Washington and Atlanta — as well, there’s no telling what the Brewers’ mindset may be starting in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Manager Ron Roenicke has made his point clear that the team needs to focus on one game at a time — a mantra that he’s repeated all season, through the highs and the lows. Now, that strategy may be at its most important juncture because Brewers’ players know how much is on their plate in the next 10 days.
“We’ve got a tough road ahead,” third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. “Pittsburgh, Washington, and Cincinnati, they’re all playing really good. We have to bring our A-game to the road trip.”
Added first baseman Corey Hart: “If we come out alive on this trip, we can write our own ticket.”
That’s a lot of pressure for a team that had struggled all season prior to their amazing 25-game stretch. But with the Pirates under the weight of similar pressure, can two teams going in very different directions change the course of each other’s destiny in three games?
With the season in its twilight and the NL’s second wild-card race so close, it certainly appears that way.