Brewers embark on crucial trip to keep hopes alive

Brewers embark on crucial trip to keep hopes alive

MILWAUKEE -- Outfielder Corey Hart might not make it back for the Brewers' toughest, and biggest, road trip because of a nagging foot injury. It hurts, and not just physically. Hart badly wants to be on the field when Milwaukee tries to stay alive in the National League Wild Card chase through a 10-day, 10-game trip to Pittsburgh, Washington and Cincinnati.

As late-season junkets go, they do not get much more challenging than the one that begins Tuesday at PNC Park.

"It's a tough one," Hart said. "What makes it tough is, we play Pittsburgh well, but they feel like they're in a 'win or die' situation, too, so every game is going to be intense. We start with them, and then Washington has been the best team in baseball almost all year, and then we've got Cincy, which is right there with them.

"But if we come out alive on this trip, we'll be writing our own ticket. We have six games at home [to finish the season]. It has to be a positive trip. We can't have a bad trip and then come home and need to win six."

Sounds like a lot of pressure, but the Brewers continue to insist that's not the case, considering they were deemed down for the count in late July, when they traded away Zack Greinke, or in mid-August, when they were 12 1/2 games out of the NL's second Wild Card berth.

Club officials began plans to evaluate prospects in September, particularly starting pitchers. Players were resigned to playing spoiler.

Somehow, improbably, those prospects are playing in a pennant race and the Brewers are contenders. Sunday's 3-0 win over the Mets was their 20th win in 26 games, and that victory left Milwaukee squarely in the hunt for the second NL Wild Card.

It remains a crowded field. As of Monday morning, the Dodgers were a game back of the Cardinals, followed by the Brewers (2 1/2 back), the Pirates (three), the Phillies (four), the D-backs (4 1/2) and, heck, the Padres (six). This Wild Card race has been so wild, why not include everybody?

The Brewers now must keep winning, and they must get help.

"Technically, we're still in a position to go 17-0 the rest of the season and still not get in," Ryan Braun said Sunday morning, before the team checked the first of those victories off his list. "We don't control our own destiny. So we've just continue to compete, and hopefully we play the way we've been playing. Our goal is to get in."

To get in, they will have to survive this tough trip.

The Pirates entered Monday's series finale at Wrigley Field 73-72 after losing 12 of their past 13 games. And depending on your outlook, the Bucs are either clinging to life in the Wild Card race or bidding to snap a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. The Brewers have won eight of 12 matchups between the teams this season, including two of three at PNC Park late last month.

The Nationals are a Major League-best 89-57 and lead the NL East. They took three of four games from the Brewers at Miller Park from July 26-30 -- the week Greinke was sent to the Angels, and the last time the Brewers lost a series at home.

The Reds were the second-best team in baseball as of Monday morning at 88-59, and have run away with the NL Central. The Brewers are 5-7 against the Reds, including 1-5 at Great American Ball Park.

"You don't expect to sweep on the road, but we need to win all three series," Hart said. "If we want to make the playoffs, that's what we'll have to do."

If Hart cannot play -- a strong possibility following a discouraging baserunning session Sunday morning -- he will remain chief cheerleader. He is not the only player banged up. Braun had slumped before Sunday while playing through a wrist injury. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez has been bothered by his left wrist and lower back.

Yet the Brewers have continued their charge behind a starting staff that has skewed dramatically younger since Greinke was traded and Randy Wolf was released. A bullpen that still leads the Major Leagues in blown saves has stabilized since John Axford pitched his way back into the closer role. The defense remains a strength with rookies Jean Segura and Jeff Bianchi sharing shortstop.

In short, the Brewers are finally playing good baseball.

"A month ago, we were out of it," Ramirez said. "Now we've got a chance."

Which has sparked a debate: Was getting back into the 2012 race enough? Or now that they are so close to the postseason, would it be a huge disappointment to miss the cut?

"Everybody here will be extremely disappointed if we don't make it," Hart said. "But to go from -- everybody wrote us off. Everybody in baseball forgot about us and were basically like, 'All right, they're going to get rid of everybody and get ready for next year.'

"But this whole team still had faith. We'll be disappointed if it doesn't get there, but everybody in here will hold their head up. We fought. We made this interesting. We didn't give up."

So it comes down to this road trip. Unless it doesn't.

In this wild Wild Card race, nothing seems certain.

"I would not be surprised at all if this comes down to the last homestand of the year," Braun said. "Just look at how many teams are in it, how we're all bunched up. There are still, legitimately, five or six teams in it.

"It would be a good thing for us. The goal is to be 'in it' as long as possible, and we'll hopefully find a way to pull it out at the end."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.