Brewers’ weekend series vs. Pirates could have huge impact on division

Pedro Alvarez (left) and the Pirates have been trying to catch Jean Segura and the first-place Brewers all season, and they'll have a chance to gain some ground in a three-game series starting Friday at Miller Park.

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MILWAUKEE — Despite having lost seven of their last eight games, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.

However, Pittsburgh’s recent woes have allowed the Milwaukee Brewers to build a six-game lead over the third-place Pirates.

At this time last season, the Pirates led the National League Central, but injuries to members of the starting lineup and a shaky bullpen have Pittsburgh fighting for its postseason life.

With Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker back from injuries, the Pirates are close to full strength and aiming to get back in the division race during a three-game series in Milwaukee this weekend. On the other side of things, the Brewers can begin to make the National League Central a two-horse race with a sweep or a series win.

While the Pirates enter on a slide, the Brewers have won five of six and haven’t lost a series since dropping two of three to the Cardinals at the beginning of August.

"We’re playing good baseball," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "We didn’t pitch that well, you know, a few innings there (Wednesday). Besides that we’re playing really well. I’m really happy to see what our offense is doing, we’re starting to swing the bats really well again.

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"The lineup’s getting deep where everybody is helping us, and I think we have to be able to do that. As we know we’re going to be facing some good pitching and that offense has got to be able to do something."

Pittsburgh pulled to within 1 1/2 games of Milwaukee with a home sweep of the Detroit Tigers on August 12. The Pirates are 1-7 since and have lost 4 1/2 games in the standings to the Brewers. Nothing has gone right for Pittsburgh during its recent slide, as the Pirates are averaging just 3.4 runs and have a team ERA of 4.91 over their last eight games.

Milwaukee will send its three hottest pitchers to the mound against Pittsburgh, with Yovani Gallardo starting the series opener Friday, Wily Peralta trying for his MLB-leading 16th win of the season Saturday and Mike Fiers looking to continue his impressive run Sunday.

The Pirates will counter with Jeff Locke, Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley, hoping their rotation will get back on track after posting a 5.19 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .297 in their last eight games.

Pittsburgh has had numerous injuries throughout the course of the season, none bigger than the fractured rib cartilage that caused McCutchen to miss 14 games. The reigning National League MVP returned Tuesday but is hitless in eight at-bats since.

McCutchen’s presence in Pittsburgh’s lineup changes things completely, but a healthy Walker makes a difference as well. Walker recently missed 10 games with a back injury but returned last weekend in Washington.

Having McCutchen and Walker healthy is important with Pedro Alvarez struggling both offensively and defensively. Because of his defensive struggles at third base, Alvarez is trying to learn to play first base on the fly.

Alvarez, who tied for the National League lead with 31 home runs in 2013, has just 15 homers this season and has made just seven starts in August.

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A series win for the Brewers would send the Pirates out of town at least seven games back in the division. While the calendar has yet to hit September, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee square off just once in the season’s final month — a three-game series at PNC Park from Sept. 19-21.

"The Pirates are looking to rebound right now, so we need to come out and still do our thing and make sure we stay on top," said Brewers reliever Zach Duke. "This is where everybody wants to be. You want to be in contention when this time of year comes around. That’s what makes it fun."

One of the reasons the Brewers started the season off strong and have led the National League Central since April 5 is because of how well they have played against the Pirates. After going 7-12 against Pittsburgh last season, Milwaukee has won 10 of 13 games thus far over its division rivals, the largest improvement in win percentage over a division foe in the National League.

"Every win counts," Brewers left fielder Khris Davis said. "Baseball is crazy when it comes down to the last day. Just focusing on the now is a lot of fun right now.

"I just feel like we’re having a lot of fun as a group and enjoying ourselves."

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