In less than three weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned the NL Central race from a runaway into a tight chase.
The red-hot Pirates look to pick up where they left off as they emerge from the All-Star break to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night.
Pittsburgh (53-35) was four games under .500 and under intense scrutiny from manager Clint Hurdle on May 20, seemingly an unlikely candidate to return to the postseason for a third straight year. Getting back there as a division champion for the first time since 1992 seemed less likely as the Pirates were a season-high nine games back of first-place St. Louis following a loss to Atlanta on June 28.
They’ve closed the gap to 2 1/2 games behind an 11-2 stretch that includes three straight wins over the Cardinals heading into the break. Gregory Polanco ended the four-game set with a walkoff single in Sunday’s 6-5, 10-inning victory.
"If people didn’t think we’re for real, they probably do now," said shortstop Jordy Mercer, who is hitting .348 in the last 17 games after batting .212 through the first 60. "I just think it’s the culture we’re trying to create here. We’re slowly getting there. Sure we’ve got ways to go. We know we’re heading in the right direction."
Charlie Morton (6-2, 4.15 ERA) gets the ball in the opener of the three-game set at Miller Park. The right-hander allowed three hits in 7 1-3 innings of a 2-0 home win over the Brewers on June 10 in his fourth start of the season after opening the year on the disabled list with a hip injury.
He recorded a 1.62 ERA in winning his first five starts but has since gone 1-2 with an 8.68 ERA in four outings. He showed some signs of coming around July 8 against San Diego, allowing two runs with four walks in six innings while not getting a decision in a 5-2 win.
The Brewers (38-52), last in the Central, are looking to recapture their success from a season-high eight-game winning streak before losing four of the next six heading into the break.
"The last couple weeks, I think we’ve been playing much better baseball," All-Star right fielder Ryan Braun said. "So the goal is just to get back to being consistently competitive."
That’s certainly true for the offense, which has a .242 average over the last six games after batting .353 during the winning streak.
Braun is 5 for 20 with one RBI in the last five games after hitting .439 while driving in 10 runs over the previous 10. He’s batting .194 in nine 2015 meetings with Pittsburgh, going 2 for 11 in three at home.
Mike Fiers (4-7, 3.96) hasn’t been very effective on the mound against the Pirates, posting a 2-4 record and 6.12 ERA in eight games – six starts. The right-hander surrendered five runs and seven hits with eight strikeouts in five innings of a 6-2 home loss to Pittsburgh on April 10.
He’s had a lot of trouble with Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, who are a combined 14 for 32 with five homers and three doubles off him.
Fiers served up a pair of homers in a four-run third inning before leaving after the sixth and not getting a decision in a 6-5 win over Atlanta on July 8. He was 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA in his previous three starts.