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Resilient Brewers stay atop division, fend off Cards, Pirates in competitive NL Central

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MILWAUKEE - The Milwaukee Brewers keep finding ways to stay atop the National League Central.

Milwaukee has been alone or tied for first since April 5, but it's been a high-wire act atop the division, especially since July 1.

The latest brush with second came Sunday, when Milwaukee entered the day with a half-game lead over St. Louis and went home that night with a 1 1/2-game cushion following another nice outing by fill-in starter Mike Fiers and a Cardinals' loss to Philadelphia.

Call it a coincidence, Scooter Gennett said. For the second baseman, it's more about Milwaukee proving to be a good team over the long haul.

"I think it's just a coincidence. It's just, you know, playing hard," Gennett said after getting two hits in Sunday's 4-3 victory over Pittsburgh to snap a three-game slide. "Sometimes you lose them, sometimes you win them, and I think we're winning them at the right times."

Milwaukee began its second California road trip in two weeks on Monday with the start of a three-game series in San Diego. The Pirates have showed resilience of late, too, following up a seven-game losing streak by taking three of their last four, including two of three from the Brewers on the road.

After falling seven back, Pittsburgh's deficit was back to five going into an important three-game series with St. Louis starting Monday.

"We're right where we need to be," Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

Some things to watch in what should be a competitive final five weeks in the NL Central:

BREWERS PITCHING: Fiers is 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA since stepping into the rotation for the injured Matt Garza, including 32 strikeouts in 28 innings. Garza had what manager Ron Roenicke termed as a good bullpen session Sunday, and he is expected to get more extensive bullpen work Tuesday as he works his way back from a strained muscle in his rib cage.

Lohse was returning to the rotation Monday to start the Padres series after being sidelined since Aug. 13 with a right ankle injury.

Roenicke, for now, isn't thinking about what will happen in the rotation once Garza is ready to return. The veteran could return in early September, when rosters would expand anyway to 40 players.

The rotation doesn't include a true ace, but features pitchers who can deliver quality starts or better on any night. Fiers' emergence provides Roenicke with a pleasant numbers problem.

"He's been dominant," outfielder Ryan Braun said of Fiers. "I think when you exceed expectations you need guys to exceed expectations individually."

MASTERSON'S MISERY: The good news for St. Louis is that it is 3-2 in games when Justin Masterson starts. The bad news is that the veteran right-hander has a 7.43 ERA in five starts since being acquired at the trade deadline from Cleveland.

Masterson has given up at least four earned runs in each of his St. Louis outings, save for a

Save for pitching seven scoreless innings Aug. 13 at Miami, Masterson has given up at least four runs in each of his starts. Manager Mike Matheny is hopeful for a turnaround from Masterson, who would be next scheduled to start Saturday against the Cubs.

PIRATES STEADY: Pittsburgh just missed sweeping the Brewers on the road. But manager Clint Hurdle likes how his team responded from a season-high seven-game losing streak by beating the Braves before taking two from Milwaukee.

Since losing 11-3 to Atlanta on Aug. 19, Pirates pitching held opponents to no more than three runs in the next three games.

Pedro Alvarez, who recently moved to first, had two homers Saturday. They were his first home runs since July 11.

"A lot of things that we had highlighted coming in needing to improve upon, we did," Hurdle said.

THE OTHERS: The Cincinnati Reds were 9 1/2 back in the Central starting the week, only ahead of last-place Chicago. But the September schedule provides both teams, along with the others, with ample opportunities to affect the race.

Milwaukee faces a gauntlet of a nine-game road trip in late September, which includes three games in Pittsburgh.

"It's a good division. It's going to be a fight to the finish," Hurdle said. "I just love the fact that we're playing games that matter late, and our guys are playing with great effort and great focus."

___

Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP

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