The Cardinals' dream stretch has been the Brewers' nightmare. They intertwined and continued Thursday night as St. Louis stretched its winning streak to a season-best six games and the National League Central lead to four games. Milwaukee's season-worst streak has hit nine consecutive losses.
The Brewers do have two positive factors, however: They're still tied for the second NL Wild Card with Atlanta, and they have three more chances this weekend to make up ground on the Cardinals at Miller Park. On Friday, they'll send Mike Fiers to the mound against John Lackey.
The Brewers' free-fall, coupled with the Cardinals' climb, has turned what was a 1 1/2-game division lead on Aug. 26 into a four-game deficit 10 days later. The Brewers had the lead in the Central for seemingly the entire season, holding first place for 159 days in 2014.
But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak knows it all matters where you're standing when the dust settles.
"The season is long, and one of the things you learn early in your career is it matters where you end," Mozeliak said Thursday. "Obviously, getting off to a good start is helpful. It tends to build momentum. But if you can finish strong and allow yourself to take that next step, the timing of playing well has value."
And while this four-game series is looked at as arguably the most important for the Brewers this season, manager Rob Roenicke said it doesn't matter who they're playing, it's a matter of playing better.
"Somebody asked me [Wednesday] in postgame about, 'Well, you got the Cardinals now.' " he said. "My gosh, we just got kicked by the Cubs, kicked by the Giants, the last two games against the Padres. Why would I think any differently against the Cardinals? We just need to play good baseball. If they play good baseball, we can beat any team. It's not going to be every night, but we can beat any team when we play well."
It will be the seventh start in a Cardinals uniform for Lackey, who has a 4.23 ERA so far, while the team has won five of his first six outings. It will be the right-hander's second look against the Brewers, who were also his opponent during his St. Louis debut. Lackey allowed two runs on seven hits in seven innings against Milwaukee on Aug. 3 in a 3-2 win.
Fiers, meanwhile, enters off a phenomenal August in which he posted a 1.80 ERA and had 41 strikeouts in five starts (35 innings). He's lasted exactly seven innings in each of his last three starts. And though he struck out nine and gave up three runs during his last outing, he wasn't backed by the bats in a 3-1 loss to the Giants.
Brewers: Braun set to return to lineup after birth of daughter
The Brewers expect to have their right fielder back in their lineup on Friday, and Ryan Braun recently added a new position: father.
Braun was out of Milwaukee's starting lineup for the second consecutive game Thursday after his wife, Larisa, gave birth to the couple's first child, Celine Elysse, late Wednesday night.
While Braun will likely return, center fielder Carlos Gomez will need more time before he's back in the lineup as he's nursing a sprained left wrist. Gomez was used as a pinch-runner Thursday night, but will be kept from the batter's box for a while longer.
The two outfielders were slumping while they were playing during the Crew's losing streak, going a combined 5-for-40 with 21 strikeouts during the team's previous nine games.
"I'd like he and 'Gomey' in the lineup," Roenicke said. "It's always different when you don't have, especially with what we've been going through lately, you want everyone out there. But [in Braun's case] you've got to do what you've got to do. This is obviously the most important thing in his life."
Cardinals: Adams dealing with oblique strain
Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams did not play Thursday night after he sustained a mild left oblique strain against the Pirates on Wednesday.
Xavier Scruggs was promoted from Triple-A and got the start against the Brewers, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a throwing error in his Major League debut.
Adams hurt himself during an at-bat on Wednesday, and he sat out amidst a 5-for-44 slump he's been mired in since his last homer, which came on Aug. 22.
"It was about that time where it looked like he'd need a couple days, regardless of health," manager Mike Matheny said. "He was just kind of fighting himself at the plate a little bit. Hopefully, that's something that he can work on, too, is clearing his mind and working on his swing thoughts as much as anything else."
Roenicke reported that right-hander Matt Garza felt "really good" on Thursday, a day after rejoining the rotation after a monthlong stint on the DL for a rib-cage strain.
"No setback at all, so that's a good thing," Roenicke said. "Hopefully, the next outing we'll make some plays behind him and we'll have a nice, clean ballgame."
Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.