MILWAUKEE – If the Cincinnati Reds have any chance of catching the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central race, they'll need a strong showing in their three-game series this week.
Entering Tuesday's series opener, the Reds sat 7.5 games behind the Brewers. The Reds don't have any more games against Milwaukee beyond this three-game set, adding to the importance of winning the series.
"Three huge games," Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson said. "Obviously, they’re ahead of us. If we can go out there and sweep them, that’s going to make things really interesting. They’re huge. We know that. They know that. It’s probably going to be some of the best baseball played during those three games."
The Brewers haven't shown any signs of slowing down. They own a 55-26 record since May 22, their first game with shortstop Willy Adames after acquiring him in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Starting pitcher Corbin Burnes ranks second in the Majors with a 2.13 ERA entering Tuesday's start. Brandon Woodruff is fifth (2.48). Freddy Peralta doesn't have enough innings to qualify after a stint on the injured list, but he's posted a 2.45 ERA.
Milwaukee's offense ranks second in MLB with 5.1 runs per game since June 26 and third with a .266 batting average.
"With them being as far back as they are, it’s kind of a big series, I think, for them more than for us," Burnes told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel before the series. "Every game is big for them.
“For us at this stage, I think it’s more about us staying healthy and getting everyone ready to go for that postseason race.”
The Reds have a one-game lead for the second wild-card spot over the San Diego Padres. As much as they've gained ground in the wild-card race over the past month, the Reds are somehow a half-game worse in the divisional battle than they were on July 26 – and they have an 18-8 record since that date.
"I know from the outside looking in, obviously, you can go up some games on Milwaukee here who is on top of the division," Reds outfielder Tyler Naquin said. "Obviously, love to win the division. That’s the goal here, the first one. But man, the goal for us, I think, is to keep playing good baseball and those stats in the standings will take care of itself.
"You start looking at all that, you start kind of pressing and trying to do this and that. It’s another game. If we take care of our business, we’ll be where we need to be."
The Reds have an advantageous schedule for the final five weeks of the season, which should give them an edge for the wild card. After their three-game series against the Brewers, they play nine of their final 33 games against teams with a winning record.
Milwaukee has 10 games remaining against the St. Louis Cardinals, plus four games against the San Francisco Giants and three versus the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"It’s a good, healthy determination, excitement," Reds manager David Bell said. "It’s right where we want to be. And realizing just how much we have left ahead of us, there's just not really a better time of year for a baseball player. This is what it’s all about."
The Brewers view their three-game set against the Reds as an opportunity to pull away with the division. They swept the Reds at Great American Ball Park following the All-Star break and the Reds haven't been any closer than five games out of first place since then.
“We understand that they’re chasing us, and we need to show up and play our best baseball against them," Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. "These are definitely some huge games against them. We have to continue to go out there and give it our all, and hopefully come out with two out of three on them."
The pitching matchups lined up to have top starters facing each other. Burnes vs. Tyler Mahle on Tuesday. Woodruff vs. Luis Castillo on Wednesday. Lefty Brett Anderson faces Sonny Gray in the series finale Thursday.
"All the guys here, we’re excited to face the Brewers," reliever Tejay Antone said. "You sweep them and really show the rest of the league, ‘hey, we are the Cincinnati Reds and we are ready to be in the playoffs.'
"I’m excited that the timing was right and we are facing the Brewers. We have a good September coming up. A lot of good off days. I think it’s going to prep us to win a lot of games and get that final foot across the finish line and into the playoffs.”