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NL Central: Brewers primed for postseason

This week's series sweep at the hands of the rival St. Louis Cardinals notwithstanding, the Milwaukee Brewers have established themselves as one of the National League's top contenders for October glory.

St. Louis swept the Brewers in three games at Miller Park, the first time all year they have lost three straight at home. Milwaukee had not lost two in a row since July 23-24 in San Francisco. Of course, following those losses to the Giants more than five weeks ago, Milwaukee got ridiculously hot and went on a 27-5 run. And ever since losing back-to-back home games back on July 4-5, the Brewers' 36-15 record is the second-best in baseball in that span. With that stretch, the Brewers have effectively served notice to the rest of the league that they will indeed be a major force come October, barring a monumental September collapse.

The team's 21 wins in August fell one short of setting a new franchise record for wins in a month. It's easy to forget that as recently as late-July, Milwaukee was in a three-way tie atop the National League Central standings with St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Now, the Brewers' 7 1/2-game margin is tied for the widest of any division in baseball, while their 50-19 home record is by far the best mark. Surely, the odds will be stacked against any team that has to visit Miller Park in the postseason. As manager Ron Roenicke pointed out following this week's rare consecutive home losses, red flags likely wouldn't have been raised had his club not been so dominant at home all season long. Second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. echoed those sentiments.

"We've been going through a great stretch," Hairston told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We're not going to be red-hot the whole time. Give (the Cardinals) credit. They're a good team. They just flat-out beat us."

There is obviously good reason not to get into a panic over a few losses. After all, the Brewers have been able to pad their lead behind stellar pitching and a consistently productive offense. The starting rotation has performed so well that 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke (13-5, 4.05) is behind fellow starters Shaun Marcum (11-5, 3.24), Randy Wolf (11-9, 3.58) and Yovani Gallardo (15-9, 3.68) in terms of ERA.

The lineup also boasts several pitfalls for opposing pitchers to navigate. Corey Hart extended his hitting streak to a season-long 14 games with a single and a home run on Thursday, a day after blasting his fifth leadoff homer of the year. He has gotten more and more comfortable in the leadoff spot, hitting .313 there while setting the table for potent Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Also on Thursday, Fielder became the first player in club history to hit at least 30 home runs in five straight seasons.

In any case, despite ceding three games to the Cardinals in the standings, the talk around the Brewers' clubhouse was largely about keeping the pedal to the metal.

"Seven and a half is still plenty good," Hart said. "This is the first series in a while where we didn't play as well as we should have, and you're going to get beat by good teams when you don't play well. We know we have to go on the road and start playing a little better."

"We don't want to give (the Cardinals) that feeling that they have a chance to come back from that many games," Roenicke said. "They've got a good team. They're not going to quit. We know that. It's not like we're letting up. We're still playing hard. We're still doing things we need to do. We lost (three) games. We've been playing great.

CUBS LOOKING AT A'S BEANE TO BE NEW GM?

Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is in the early stages of the search for a new general manager to replace Jim Hendry, who was fired on Aug. 19. Ricketts' silence on the matter has not stopped the rumor mill from churning out possible names to become the club's new GM.

One of the names is Oakland Athletics GM and sabermetrics pioneer, Billy Beane, who is the subject of the upcoming Hollywood film, Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. Those rumors gained some steam on Wednesday when Ricketts was spotted at San Francisco's AT&T Park, with the Cubs in the Bay Area taking on the Giants. A's co-owner Lew Wolff told the San Francisco Chronicle that as of Wednesday nobody had called seeking permission to interview Beane, but added, "If they do, I certainly want (Beane) to be able to pursue any opportunity he'd like."

Ricketts has said he wants his new GM to have a successful track record operating a big league club. He has also expressed his preference for a GM with a strong analytical background in advanced baseball metrics, further spawning the Beane conjecture.

"When I look at the candidates, I kind of see a couple of criteria," Ricketts said shortly after Hendry's dismissal. "I see No. 1 they'll have to share a commitment to player development, which obviously is the key to consistent success. I think we can look for guys that have a little stronger analytical background than maybe some of the guys we have here. Someone who has worked with some of the new tools, that would be a plus.

"And then someone who's been in a winning culture and who can bring the lessons of that over and has a track record of success. The sabermetric stuff is important, but it's just a piece. We're not running the baseball organization by a computer model. "

Earlier this week, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein squashed rumors of the Cubs' pursuit and his possible interest, saying his sole focus right now is on the Red Sox trying to win a World Series. Another reputable executive just across town is White Sox vice president and assistant GM Rick Hahn, who has a clause in his contract that allows him to interview with a handful of teams, including the Cubs, according to league sources.

While Ricketts has vowed to conduct the search privately, such rumors are bound to continue swirling until a decision is eventually made.

HAPP'S PROGRESS KEY FOR ASTROS

The 15 losses attributed to Houston Astros starter J.A. Happ are more than any other pitcher in the National League this season. The fact that Happ still leads all NL pitchers in losses despite recently being demoted to the minor leagues for a span of three starts speaks to just how much the young left- hander has struggled.

However, judging by a couple of outings since recently being recalled, Happ seems to have put those struggles behind him. He twirled seven scoreless innings against the Pirates Wednesday night, allowing just three hits to go along with six strikeouts in leading Houston to its fourth straight win. In two starts since returning his demotion, Happ has allowed only one earned run in 13 innings. His victory on Wednesday was his first in the big leagues since July 19, snapping a personal four-game losing streak.

Manager Brad Mills pointed to Happ's newfound confidence and rhythm as two of the biggest factors for the turnaround. Happ conceded he may have let all of the negativity surrounding the club throughout the season affect his play. Now, he is intent on taking the mound with an aggressive mindset and attacking the strike zone to get ahead of hitters.

"It's been quite a bit different," Happ said. "Obviously, having some success is helping, and a little bit of a mentality change and just trying to be positive out there. I'm trying to get in and out as quickly as possible."

For an Astros team that has endured quite a bit of roster turnover and is transitioning to a new owner, Happ, acquired last year in the Roy Oswalt trade, is out to prove he is still a key piece to the organization's future plans. If he continues along his current path over these final few weeks, it would certainly help assuage any such concerns.

CARDINALS NOT OUT OF HUNT YET

If anybody had forgotten about the St. Louis Cardinals in the wake of Milwaukee's red-hot August, the Redbirds delivered a message this week that they are still very much alive in the National League Central standings.

The Cardinals swept the first-place Brewers in Miller Park this week, trimming a 10 1/2-game deficit down to 7 1/2 games entering the weekend. With 25 games yet to play, it won't be an easy deficit to overcome, but history has proven it's not impossible, either.

The Cardinals' (73-64) four-game win streak is tied for their longest of the season, and overall they have won six of their last seven games. With a win Friday night against rival Cincinnati, St. Louis would move to 10 games over .500 for the first time since June 11.

In Thursday's series-sweeping win over the Brewers, Albert Pujols hit a solo home run in the first inning and later launched his 12th career grand slam in the third. His five RBI were a season-high, and he is now hitting .292 with a league-best 34 home runs despite spending some time on the disabled list earlier this summer. Matt Holliday followed suit with his 200th career homer, and 20th of the season, in the fifth inning.

The Cards will look for some more offensive production as they'll get another shot to whittle that deficit when they host Milwaukee next Monday through Wednesday at Busch Stadium.

REDS FALL FLAT AGAINST PHILLIES

Any momentum the Reds had gained leading into this week's four-game set against the Phillies was wiped away by late Thursday afternoon.

Before Monday, Cincinnati had won four straight and six of its last seven. However, the Phillies came to town and padded their MLB-best record with the club's first four-game sweep in Cincinnati since 1916. The Reds (67-70) were outscored 21-6 for the series and suffered back-to-back shutouts on Tuesday and Wednesday. In eight games against Philadelphia this season, they went just 1-7.

"This series kind of leaves a bitter taste in our mouth, but we have to go have a good road trip and get right back up to .500 and hopefully beyond," said outfielder Chris Heisey.

The Reds, now cemented in third place, begin a 10-day, nine-game road trip on Friday with stops in St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado. The goal, it would seem, is to finish above .500 and hope to catch the second-place Cardinals over these final 25 games.

"I think it would be huge for us to come back, taking second place in the division after being down where we have been," Heisey told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

PIRATES HOPING TO AVOID SLUGGISH FINISH

Regardless of how the month of September plays out for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 2011 season will be remembered as the year they led the division well into the summer and entered the All-Star break above .500 for the first time in nearly two decades. Then again, Pirates fans certainly won't forget the disastrous month of August that wiped out all of that optimism the team spent the season's first four months building.

Since July 25, when the Pirates led the NL Central and were six games above .500, they have lost an astounding 28 of 37 games. They entered Friday a season-high 13 games below .500 (62-75) and 18 1/2 games off the pace in the division. When the Pirates take the field Friday night in Chicago, they'll be trying to avoid a sixth consecutive loss.

"Guys are just cutting us up," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're making it way too easy for them right now."

Certainly, it's a tough pill to swallow for the Pirates to have the rug swept right out from under them. After winning at least 12 games in every month, the team went 8-22 in August. September did not get off to a rousing start, either, as Pittsburgh dropped a 6-4 decision on Thursday to the Dodgers and starter Dana Eveland, who spent most of this season in the minors. Prior to Thursday's makeup game, the Pirates offered little resistance during a three- game sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros, owners of the worst record in the majors.

Over these final few weeks, Hurdle said he wants to see better approaches at the plate, noting his hitters have been far too anxious in the batter's box.

"We've got to do better, collectively as a group, offensively," he stressed. "We've got to have better quality to our at-bats."