MILWAUKEE — Whenever their nearly five-month grasp on first place in the National League Central has been threatened, the Milwaukee Brewers have responded with a win to temporarily regain their footing.
The Brewers entered Sunday on a three-game losing streak and in danger of being swept by a Pittsburgh team trying to catch them in the standings. A loss combined with a St. Louis win would have knocked Milwaukee out of first place for the first time since April 5.
Enter Mike Fiers.
Continuing what has become an amazing run, Fiers allowed just two runs on just two hits over seven innings to lead the Brewers to an important 4-3 victory over the Pirates in front of a sellout crowd of 42,761 at Miller Park.
"That was really good again," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He’s staying aggressive, he left the one change-up up but aside from that, he was outstanding. He’s pitching great. His fastball has been great. He’s locating it, it’s got life on it. Then he mixes in the change-ups and the curveballs. It’s tough to figure out what he’s going to do."
Fiers became the second pitcher in baseball this season to have four straight starts of having allowed three or fewer hits over six or more innings, joining Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto. Since 1914, only Nolan Ryan, Johan Santana and Al Leiter have accomplished those feats in more than four consecutive starts.
He’s now stepped up and stopped a mini-skid for the Brewers in two of his four starts and has eliminated the negative impact of Matt Garza’s stint on the disabled list.
"It was a big win for us," Fiers said. "Losing two to the Pirates, the first two games, we knew we needed to come back and do whatever we could to get a win."
Since being recalled from Triple-A Nashville on Aug. 9, Fiers is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings pitched over four starts.
"It has been incredibly impressive," Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun said. "He’s been dominant. I think when you exceed expectations you need guys to exceed expectations individually. I don’t think anybody foresaw him coming up and being the best pitcher in baseball the last four starts.
"He’s been incredible. It has been extremely important for us based on where we are at in the standings and based on how competitive our division is and based on how big today’s game was."
For the fourth straight game, the Brewers watched an early lead quickly evaporate Sunday. Following a two-out walk to Pedro Alvarez in the second, Starling Marte hit a changeup up in the zone for a two-run homer off Fiers to tie the game at 2-2.
The Brewers answered back in the bottom of the second, as five consecutive hitters reached with two outs in the inning. Carlos Gomez doubled and scored on a single from Jonathan Lucroy, while Aramis Ramirez put Milwaukee up 4-2 with a single to right.
Fiers took over from there, retiring 16 of the 17 batters he faced following the home run. Sensing his afternoon was over, the right-hander let out a bit of emotion with a big fist pump after recording the final out of the seventh.
"I’m just so pumped up to be up here and contribute to this team," Fiers said. "To come out with a lead is even bigger. I held them to two runs, and for us to have a lead at that point was just awesome. Lot of things I think about going into the game, trying to limit the damage when they start getting runners on . . . it just felt like I was pitching, especially after the home run, I came back and pounded the strike zone.
Any team that spends 142 straight days in first place is going to have times in which they are threatened. Oakland, San Francisco and Detroit have all blown big division leads, but Milwaukee has found a way to stay on top of the NL Central.
"I think we’ve dealt with adversity well this season," Braun said. "It is such a long year that inevitably you are going to deal with ups and downs as a team. We’ve done a really good job of just turning the page and recognizing we can’t go back on things that have already happened.
"We obviously didn’t play very well the first two games this series. Today was extremely important and we found a way to get a huge win."
With St. Louis losing in Philadelphia on Sunday, Milwaukee moved to 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals in the division. While the Brewers failed to bury the third-place Pirates this weekend, salvaging the series finale pushed Pittsburgh to five games back.
Maybe just as important as gaining a game in the division is the fact the Brewers can embark on a nine-game road trip on a high note instead of heading to San Diego on a four-game losing streak.
"I think it was a big win," Roenicke said. "It’s a big win because of (the Pirates) and it’s a big win heading into the road trip. We’ve done that a lot. We’ve had some bad stretches then all of a sudden, we finish with a nice game to give us some momentum going into wherever we’re going."
Moving forward: Brewers right-hander Matt Garza threw a successful bullpen session Sunday afternoon and is continuing to progress toward an early-September return from a left oblique strain.
On the disabled list since Aug. 5, Garza will throw another bullpen session in San Diego on Tuesday. The Brewers will then decide if Garza will need a minor-league rehab outing or if he will return straight to the big-league rotation.
"It went really well," Roenicke said. "He threw all his pitches and didn’t feel anything so that’s really good. He’s going to go harder Tuesday and we’ve talked about what the next step is from there."