Reds’ Stephenson finding a groove in past four starts

CINCINNATI — Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said there are no more benchmarks to reach. The stretch run is here.

The Brewers face the Cincinnati Reds in the second game of a three-game series at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday night.

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Ohio

“Obviously, we have (24) games left,” Counsell said. “We can announce the biggest series of the year before every series. And it is. This is three tough games against a (Cincinnati) team that can really swing the bats. It’s going to be a challenging series for us and it means a lot.”

Milwaukee (72-66), which lost 5-4 on Billy Hamilton’s walk-off homer in the series opener on Monday, is 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the National League Central and 1 1/2 games back of the Colorado Rockies for the second NL wild card.

“We’re putting ourselves in a pretty good position,” Counsell said. “When you keep winning games, you find yourself in two races. That’s the best way to have it, having two options. If we keep winning games, we can do down to the wire and have two ways to get in.”

Entering Monday’s action, Milwaukee starting pitchers had a 2.20 ERA over their previous 14 games with a .203 opponents’ batting average, both major league bests in that span.

An important part of that success has been right-hander Zach Davies, who is 9-3 with a 2.43 ERA over his past 13 starts. Davies (16-7, 3.85 ERA) has 13 quality starts on the year.

Davies will be making his 29th start of the season and third against the Reds. He is 2-2 with a 3.72 ERA in seven career starts against them, 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA this season.

In his most recent outing, Davies allowed two runs on six hits over seven innings in a 6-3 win over the Washington Nationals on Thursday.

Cincinnati (59-79) is rebuilding around a stockpile of young pitching and is starting to see improvement from a few young arms, including right-hander Robert Stephenson, who takes the mound on Tuesday.

Stephenson, who doesn’t turn 25 until February, will make his 21st appearance and seventh start of the season. He has faced Milwaukee three times, compiling a 7.94 ERA with no decisions, but this will be his first start against the Brewers.

He has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his past four starts, striking out 25 and walking 12 in 22 1/3 innings.

Stephenson (3-4, 5.52 ERA) joins Luis Castillo, Sal Romano and Tyler Mahle among Cincinnati rookie starters who seemingly have turned a corner in recent weeks.

“Stephenson has shown a great deal of improvement,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “We’ve got some good, consistent performances. It’s what we’ve been looking for. Guys coming in, attacking the zone, letting the defense work. We’re starting to see guys turn corners.”

Stephenson will have to contend with a pair of Reds killers in the Brewers’ lineup, Ryan Braun and Eric Thames. Braun is the all-time leader among visitors with 25 career homers at Great American Ball Park, while Thames has 10 homers against the Reds this season, the most for any player against a single opponent in 2017.