Nats, Reds present challenge to hot streak

BY foxsports • September 21, 2012

MILWAUKEE — Back when the Milwaukee Brewers appeared to be simply mortal, destined for anonymity in October, general manager Doug Melvin claimed that the team's stretch of games from July 13-22 -- including series against division rivals Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis -- was the most important stretch of the season.

But the players in the clubhouse shied from putting added importance on the three series. It was as if deep down they knew come September -- the month of the season that truly mattered to them, as opposed to the time before trade deadline -- things would be different. Even manager Ron Roenicke tried his best to brush off the significance.

Now, two months later and coming off of one of the more impressive sweeps of their season, the Brewers aren't shying from calling it like they see it. The next two series -- both on the road, against the NL's two best teams -- will decide Milwaukee's postseason fate. With the Brewers trailing the Cardinals by 2.5 games in the race for the NL's final wild-card spot, it's as simple as that.

Plenty of things can go wrong in the next seven games, largely because of the quality of the opponents. Cincinnati is 48-25 since July 1; Washington is 47-26. And with both fighting for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, there's no doubt each heavyweight will be on its game.

The Brewers won't face Stephen Strasburg in their four-game series with the Nationals, but they'll see Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez -- who have been as good if not better than Strasburg at times this season. Even with Milwaukee's offense firing on all cylinders, there aren't many tougher matchups to run into.

Against Cincinnati, the Brewers will at some point face Johnny Cueto, one of the NL's top Cy Young candidates. Throw in the fact that Joey Votto wasn't around for the teams' last meeting, and that series is another tall order.

But sitting next to his locker last week, on the mend from a plantar fascia injury in his left foot, Brewers first baseman Corey Hart smiled when he was asked about the next two series. He wasn't going to downplay the significance now. Sure, the Brewers will need some help to pass the Cardinals, but more or less, their destiny is in their own hands in these next two series.

And if they win?

"We can punch our ticket," he said.

Maybe he was getting a little ahead of himself, but it's probably not as much of an exaggeration. The Brewers have been the hottest team in baseball in the past month, somewhat under the radar. A successful road trip against Washington and Cincinnati would give Milwaukee its highest profile yet this season, putting serious pressure on a semi-scuffling St. Louis squad.

Still, the Cardinals are the favorites for how easy their schedule is this week. Cubs-Astros looks a lot better on paper than Nationals-Reds. But don't forget: The Cardinals have to face the Nationals and Reds, too, albeit at home. Having a one- or two-game deficit after this pair of grueling series could very well put the Brewers in the driver's seat.

There's no denying how truly tall of a task that is. The Reds are good. And the Nationals are better. But no team is hotter than the Milwaukee Brewers.

And with everything on the line, that just might be enough.

Follow Ryan Kartje on Twitter.

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