Three weeks ago, the Milwaukee Brewers were an afterthought for the playoffs.
A strong showing by the Brewers this weekend against a St. Louis Cardinals team in possession of the NL's second wild-card spot could make for an interesting final three weeks of the season.
Each team will turn to its staff ace Friday night in St. Louis, where Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse will be trying to rebound from disappointing outings.
A 13-4 surge in its last 17 games has helped Milwaukee (67-70) trim 5 1/2 games off its deficit in the wild-card race and pull within seven of St. Louis (74-63), loser of six of nine.
"We're not oblivious to the race," manager Mike Matheny told the Cardinals' official website. "But we're also realizing that our energy needs to be focused on what we do. September baseball is fun to be a part of. But we have to control what we can control."
They've done a good job of controlling Milwaukee, having won eight of 12 meetings and taking five of six at home. The Brewers are averaging 2.8 runs with 10 home runs in the season series, but they are scoring 6.4 runs per game and have hit 29 homers during the 13-4 spurt.
Ryan Braun, the NL leader with 37 homers, and Norichika Aoki have been in the middle of the recent surge. Braun is hitting .404 with three home runs, six doubles and 14 RBIs in the last 11 contests, while Aoki is batting .395 with 12 runs during a 10-game hitting streak.
"Every game is a must-win at this point," catcher Jonathan Lucroy told the Brewers' official website after Thursday's 6-2 loss to Miami. "We're not going to treat any team any different. We just need to go in there, play hard and play good. If we play up to our ability, we're going to be successful."
To be successful in the opener of this series, they may need Gallardo (14-8, 3.79 ERA) to regain his composure after a brutal showing and finally figure out a way to beat the Cardinals.
Gallardo was tagged for seven runs and a season-high 11 hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 12-8 win at Pittsburgh on Sunday. The right-hander had allowed nine runs in winning his previous six starts, posting a 1.90 ERA.
Gallardo had similar problems in his previous two starts against the Cardinals. He gave up six runs in 3 2-3 innings in an 11-5 loss on opening day and was shelled for a season-worst eight runs in two innings in a 13-1 defeat in St. Louis on April 27.
All-Stars Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Yadier Molina have homered off Gallardo this year and are a combined 10 for 14 with five walks. Holliday, Freese and Molina were out of the starting lineup in Wednesday's 6-2 loss to New York but are expected back Friday.
Freese is batting .362 with three homers and 11 RBIs against the Brewers this season, while Molina is hitting .383 with two home runs, six RBIs and eight runs.
Lohse (14-2, 2.81) has fared much better than Gallardo in the season series, posting a 2.25 ERA in winning both starts, but he also struggled his last time out. Lohse was knocked around for eight runs - five earned - and nine hits in 5 2-3 innings Saturday in Washington before the Cardinals rallied for a 10-9 victory to keep him unbeaten in 14 starts.
The right-hander, who came into Saturday's game with a 1.42 ERA in his previous five starts, is 8-0 with a 2.64 ERA since losing to Kansas City on June 15.
He has done an excellent job of containing Braun, limiting the reigning NL MVP to one hit - a homer - in 15 at-bats since the start of last season.