The Astros, of course, are no stranger to strong finishing kicks, having risen from the ashes in 2004 and 2005 to make the playoffs, and they got back into contention in 2006 and 2008 with late runs. The Brewers took the NL Wild Card spot last year to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982, and they have spent 44 days in first place this year.
Milwaukee enters Friday at 54-54, four games behind the Cubs and Cardinals and one ahead of the Astros (53-55).
"We're getting to a position where we need to win as many games, as many series, as possible," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said. "We can't fall too many more games back with [two] teams ahead of us. Every series from here out is kind of a must-win for us."
Houston has lost nine of 12 games since sweeping St. Louis and climbing to within one game of first place in the division on July 22. Astros starting pitchers have only four quality starts in those 12 games, and the team has struggled because of injuries to its two best players -- first baseman Lance Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt.
Berkman has been on the disabled list since July 22 with a strained left calf, and Oswalt hasn't pitched since July 28 because of a strain in his left lower back. Berkman will miss the Brewers series, and Oswalt could return on Sunday, at the earliest.
"It's just not happening for us," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "We're a little bit short-handed, but we can't use that as an excuse. We have to suck it up and make pitches and get it done. Not a whole lot you can do [as a manager]. Keep encouraging is what you can do. We certainly will do that."
Astros vs. Brewers in 2009
|Brewers lead 4-2, all games in Houston|
|Astros home record: 29-27|
|Brewers' road record: 27-28|
|Brewers' batting average vs. Astros: .293|
|Astros' batting average vs. Brewers: .234|
|Brewers' team ERA vs. Astros: 3.33|
|Astros' team ERA vs. Brewers: 4.50|
The Astros will play their next 13 games against the Brewers and Marlins. Of their final 54 games, 36 are against teams currently at .500 or better, and 18 are against teams that have losing records.
"We are fighting to stay in it, and we need to have a good streak, that's for sure," Cooper said. "I think we've got one in us. I know we do. We have to get people healthy and have consistent starting pitching. They're the ones that carried us to this point anyway, and we need more of that. But good health will be the key."
The Brewers are coming off Braden Looper's 6 2/3-inning quality start in Wednesday's win over the Dodgers, but pitching remains their chief concern with right-handers Jeff Suppan (oblique) and Dave Bush (triceps) on the disabled list. General manager Doug Melvin worked hard before Friday's non-waiver Trade Deadline to acquire a starter, and said that he came close to a high-profile deal that fizzled in the final hour.
But according to the man in charge, the Brewers aren't finished shopping.
"We're still trying to get a pitcher or two," principal owner Mark Attanasio said before Wednesday's series finale in Los Angeles.
If the Brewers don't make a deal, they will have to continue piecing together a rotation with converted relievers. Carlos Villanueva is set for his third start on Friday, and he provided some reason for optimism in his most recent start, at San Diego on Sunday. In five scoreless innings, he walked four batters but allowed only two hits and no runs.
Winning two of three in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, owners of Major League Baseball's best record, qualified as a big success for a team that had not won a series in more than a month. The Brewers took two of three from the Mets at Miller Park from June 29 to July 1, then lost or split their next eight series before this week.
It had been even longer since the Brewers won a series on the road: June 15-17 at Cleveland, when Milwaukee swept an Interleague set.
"These wins are huge for us," infielder Craig Counsell said as the Brewers packed their bags at Dodger Stadium. "This is a really big time for us, and I thought we played with some good energy. We beat the best team in the National League in two out of three at their own place. That's big. It's something to get us going."
The schedule could work in their favor. Beginning with the series in Houston, the Brewers play 22 consecutive games through the end of August against teams that entered the weekend with sub-.500 records. September gets tougher, with nine games against the Cardinals, seven against the Cubs, four against the defending World Series champion Phillies, and three apiece against the Astros, Giants and Rockies. The month includes only one series -- against the D-backs from Sept. 11-13 -- against a non-contender.
"We still think we're in it," Attanasio said. "We just have to get on a winning streak. It's possible. Look at the way the Rockies came on [in 2007, when they won 21 of their final 22 regular-season games]. The Astros have done it a couple times this decade. If you can be in position in September, then you see who gets hot. We're still in position right now.
"We have had plenty of hitting. We just have to get commercially acceptable pitching, and we're going to be hard to beat."