Crew up to challenge, still eyes division crown

Brewers know Wild Card Game can be 'stressful,' hope to gain on Cubs in crucial series

Crew up to challenge, still eyes division crown

MILWAUKEE -- Neil Walker has played in the past four National League Wild Card Games, and his team has lost three of them. On one hand, he would happily play another because it would mean the Brewers made the postseason. On the other hand, Walker knows all too well the perils of "one and done."

With the NL Central race still in play and a critical weekend series against the Cubs set to begin Friday night, Walker knows which path to the postseason is preferable.

"You obviously want to win the division," Walker said. "That's first and foremost. The one-game Wild Card is so interesting -- and so stressful."

Standings | Wild Card

Catcher Stephen Vogt can relate. He played for the A's in the epic 2014 American League Wild Card Game against the Royals. Oakland twice lost a late-inning lead and lost in 12 innings, 9-8.

"In the perfect world, you win the division and don't deal with the one-and-done," Vogt said. "Obviously, this is a big weekend. It's a chance for us to make a move in the division and gain some momentum into the last couple of weeks. It's huge."

The Brewers need momentum after losing three straight games in Cincinnati against the last-place Reds. The sweep took some of the juice out of this weekend's showdown at Wrigley Field, since Milwaukee then found itself 4 1/2 games behind first-place Chicago and suddenly trailing St. Louis by a half-game, too. After this weekend, the Brewers will have only 19 games left, so falling any further behind the Cubs would represent a serious blow.

Milwaukee also sat third in the race for the second NL Wild Card, 2 1/2 games behind Colorado, which leads the way, and a half-game behind St. Louis.

"We obviously know where we are in the standings. We know what we need to do," Walker said. "But you don't want to get caught in the trap of making games more important than they need to be until it's absolutely necessary. Our focus this weekend is to play well and win the series, hopefully pick up a game or two."

Said Vogt: "I think the main thing you have to do is enjoy it. This is not something everyone gets to experience. We're going into Wrigley Field fighting for a division."

The Crew has the pitching matchups it wants. Manager Craig Counsell bumped Jimmy Nelson from the Reds series so he would pitch Friday's opener against the Cubs, followed by Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. Those are Milwaukee's three top starters.

Meanwhile, the Brewers miss the Cubs' top three starters. Jake Arrieta was scratched from a Saturday start with a hamstring injury, and lefties Jon Lester and Jose Quintana simply didn't line up for the weekend. Milwaukee will face veteran John Lackey on Friday night.

"The second half, we've done a lot better [as a pitching staff]," Nelson said. "[Our hitters] were really picking us up a lot in the first half. That's what happens with a team throughout the season. You want it all to come together down the stretch."

The Brewers' bats have not been clicking for some time. They routed the Cubs, 11-2, in the makeup of a May rainout on July 6 when the Crew and Cubs last met at Wrigley Field, and then they scored 17 runs in winning two of three on the road against the Yankees.

But since the All-Star break, Milwaukee's 3.61 runs per game is last of the 30 Major League teams. The Brewers' opportunity to turn it around starts this weekend at Wrigley Field.

"Everybody wants to win the division, and that's obviously within our control," third baseman Travis Shaw said. "The Wild Card is not within our control -- that's 'win and hope for somebody else to lose.' At least we control our own destiny in the Central, so these seven games against the Cubs are going to be extremely important."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.