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Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers @ Pittsburgh Pirates

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Don’t sleep on the Pirates as a possible division contender

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Now that we're in the second half of the season, plenty of people will be scoreboard watching the rest of the way. Most of the focus will be put on the Chicago Cubs, who will start the week 4.5 games behind the Brewers for first place in the NL Central.

That's natural, considering the Cubs are the defending division and World Series champions, and most of the national talking heads still expect Chicago to make a second-half run. I'm here to tell you not to sleep on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Yes, they come into this series at 44-48, 7 games behind the Brewers. However, Pittsburgh has won 7 of their last 10 games -- including series wins over the Cubs and Cardinals. They'll get a big boost in the middle of this series, when All-Star and Gold Glover Starling Marte returns from his 80-game PED suspension for using Nadrolone on Tuesday (on a side note, it'll be great to hear Pirates fans chant "steroids" at Ryan Braun in the top of the first inning and cheer for Marte in the bottom half of the inning).

There's still a lot of baseball left on the schedule, but the Pirates have a chance to really claw back into the NL Central race with this four-game set. On the other hand, the Brewers have an early chance to effectively bury a would-be challenger.

Probable Pitchers

Monday, 6:05 p.m. CDT, FS Wisconsin - Brent Suter vs. Chad Kuhl

Kuhl's first half -- a 4.96 ERA in 18 starts -- looks underwhelming, but his 4.23 FIP looks a bit better. He's been a perfectly okay back of rotation starter to this point. His last outing of the first half lasted just 3 innings against the Cubs, but that was because he was making an emergency started on just two days' rest when Jameson Taillon came down with food poisoning before the Pirates' 14-3 win over Chicago. Kuhl has a 3.46 ERA in his past 5 starts, but opponents have still hit him for a .787 OPS on a .324 BABIP.

Tuesday, 6:05 p.m. CDT, FS Wisconsin - TBA vs. Ivan Nova

Junior Guerra is fully expected to make this start, but has yet to be activated from the disabled list, so the probable pitcher for the Brewers is officially TBA. Nova has been Pittsburgh's most successful starter to this point, putting up a 3.21 ERA in the first half despite low strikeout totals (just 67 in 120.2 innings) leading to a much higher 4.12 FIP. Nova's been able to keep the walks down this year, though, which helps. He's also avoiding giving up hard contact, which is contributing to a lower .267 BABIP. The Brewers got him for 11 hits and 4 runs over 7 innings back on June 22nd.

Wednesday, 6:05 p.m. CDT, FS Wisconsin - Zach Davies vs. Gerrit Cole

A possible trade chip if the Pirates fall completely out of contention, Cole has had a bit of a weird year. Through his first 9 starts, he was carrying a 2.84 ERA and had a 50/12 K/BB rate in 57 innings. He then went through a horrendous four-start stretch from May 22nd to June 8th that saw him give up 23 runs -- mostly behind the strength of 8 home runs -- raising his ERA by 2 full runs. Since then, he's bounced back to his regular self, allowing just 14 earned runs over his past 6 starts. He's given up a total of 20 home runs already this season, but I would caution against judging him by his full-season numbers. He had a bad couple of weeks that he's still working his way out of.

Thursday, 11:35 a.m. CDT, FS Wisconsin - Jimmy Nelson vs. Jameson Taillon

Note the extra-early start time on Thursday. Taillon returned to the Pirates' rotation in mid-June, coming back just a month after being diagnosed with testicular cancer and undergoing surgery (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great article upon his return in which he opened up about the situation that's worth checking out). Since then, Taillon has put up a 2.78 ERA in 6 starts despite a BABIP of .389. This will be the first time the Brewers see Taillon this year, but he made four starts against them last season, allowing 9 runs in 21 innings for a 3.86 ERA while striking out 16 and walking just 2.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference