MILWAUKEE -- The Pittsburgh Pirates' slim chance of making the playoffs this season have taken a big hit over the last two weeks, and even after taking two of three from the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field this week they sit 7 1/2 games out of wild-card contention.
Still, the Pirates could go a long way in determining who does make the National League postseason field this season. They play the NL Central's top three teams 19 more times this season, including nine meetings with the Milwaukee Brewers, who they will face in a three-game set starting Friday at Miller Park.
The Brewers have not fared well against the Pirates this season. Milwaukee has dropped eight of the first 10 meetings, including a five-game sweep in Pittsburgh to close out the first half.
"It's major league baseball so every team you play is a good team," Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said. "Their record might not be as good as other teams, but there are talented players on every team and if they put it together, you can lose to them on any given night.
"It's really hard to win a major league baseball game. It doesn't matter who you're playing, it's going to be tough. We know that. Especially down the stretch here, every single game counts the same and it has equal importance."
The Brewers got some help Wednesday when right-handed reliever Matt Albers returned from the disabled list. If he can revert to his first-half form, when he posted a 1.08 ERA through 21 games, it would be a major lift for a bullpen that's struggled since closer Corey Knebel was moved out of the ninth-inning role because of command issues. Joakim Soria could slide into that spot if he is cleared to return this weekend, following a 15-day DL stint for a strained thigh.
"I think we're in good shape," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "I feel like we're healthy and we're getting healthier. So, there's a lot of what I feel like are good signs. "
Pittsburgh will also make a roster move Friday. The team sent struggling reliever Michael Feliz to Triple-A Indianapolis during its off-day. It was the second demotion of the season for Feliz, who was acquired in the Gerrit Cole trade last January and has a 6.05 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 41 2/3 innings this season.
That made him the weak link in a bullpen that has been stellar over the last few weeks as the Pirates surged back into contention, only to be stymied by an offense that all but disappeared during their recent home stand when they only scored seven runs against the Cubs and Braves.
"We're doing some things really well," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're not scoring runs at the end of the day, which can complicate things and put you under a magnifying glass in every other aspect of the game. But I can't look any of the hitters in the eye and not see fight, not see want-to, not see effort and all those other things. It's tough sledding right now."
Right-hander Joe Musgrove (5-7, 3.31 ERA) gets the start for the Pirates on Friday. He struck out seven while holding the Cubs to a run over seven innings to get the win in a 3-1 victory on Saturday.
In his only career start against the Brewers, he did not get a decision after allowing five runs to Milwaukee in the Pirates' 7-6 victory at PNC Park on July 15 this season.
Milwaukee hands the ball to left-hander Wade Miley (2-2, 2.18) for the series opener. Miley has established himself as one of the team's top pitchers after battling through groin and rib injuries to start the season. He has held opponents to no more than three earned runs in any of his nine starts and allowed two or fewer in eight of those contests.
Miley is 2-3 with a 3.77 ERA in eight career starts against Pittaburgh, and in his only start against the Pirates this season, he gave up two runs, four hits and five walks in five innings and took the loss in a 6-3 defeat on July 12.