MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Brewers' playoff hopes will face a tough test Thursday when they open a four-game series against Gio Gonzalez and the National League East-leading Washington Nationals at Miller Park.
Gonzalez has produced some of his best work over the last few weeks, going 5-0 with a 0.79 ERA over his last five starts to drop his season mark to 2.40, the third-best mark in baseball.
"Last year he had a .500 season; this year he's one of our main guys. He's going deeper and deeper in games; his pitch counts are coming down," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said of Gonzalez, who has a 2.57 ERA in one career start against Milwaukee but has never pitched at Miller Park.
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The Brewers will counter with right-hander Zach Davies, who has been sharp in his last three outings, holding opponents to just one earned run over 19 2/3 innings. He was dominant in his last outing, holding the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers scoreless for seven innings, scattering three hits without walking a batter while striking out seven.
"That was a big-time performance," manager Craig Counsell said. "He pitched a heck of a game. He has been on a pretty good roll here. This was another day where he was really in control of it. They didn't get much going."
Davies threw 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Nationals earlier this season, an aberration in an otherwise crazy series that saw the two teams combine for 38 runs, 58 hits and 16 home runs, including 10 in the series finale. Davis is 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA in three career starts against Washington.
The earlier series dropped Milwaukee out of first place for the first time since May 26, and the Brewers have been chasing the Chicago Cubs ever since. After their victory Wednesday against St. Louis, the Brewers are 3 1/2 games behind the Cubs, who defeated Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and three games behind Colorado for the second National League wild-card spot.
"There's no such thing as a non-big series or a non-big game," left fielder Ryan Braun said. "Every game is big, every series is big. You want to win every day. Some days are good, some days are not so good. It's just the nature of this game."
Washington, meanwhile, has a comfortable lead over the rest of its division opponents. The Nationals are 15 games ahead of second-place Miami and, barring an epic collapse by the Los Angeles Dodgers or last-second dash by the Cubs or Brewers, are all but locked into the No. 2 spot in the National League.
They're riding high, too, having swept the Miami Marlins to inch closer to a second straight divisional crown. Plus, with Max Scherzer and Jayson Werth returning from the disabled list earlier in the week and Bryce Harper getting close to returning from a bruised left knee that has sidelined him since Aug. 14, Washington is getting close to being back at full strength.
"It was great to be back, just to be a part of this club," Werth said. "These guys have been playing so good, and I want to be part of the machine."