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PIT@MIL: Estrada strikes out 11 Pirates over 5 2/3

The Brewers have a long way to climb if they want to get to the top of the National League Central, but they've done what they have needed to the last two series.

After taking two of three against the Pirates and Cardinals, the Brewers will look for more of the same against the NL Central-leading Reds in Cincinnati starting Friday night.

"Right now, I just want to get back in the race. That's what I want so bad," new Milwaukee closer Francisco Rodriguez said. "We had such a great run last year in the second half, and we believe as players, these 25 guys on this ballclub, that we can make it again. That's going to be our goal. It's a challenge, but not impossible."

Despite the club's imposing deficit in the standings -- even in the battle for the NL's two Wild Card spots -- Milwaukee has remained hopeful. The fact that the Reds are without Joey Votto, who underwent surgery to repair his left knee, only strengthens the Brewers' conviction.

"You just don't know. You never know," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said. "Joey Votto is out for the next month -- that completely changes the dynamic of the division. When one of the teams ahead of you loses its best player for a month, that changes everything.

"We've dealt with it. Look at all of the injuries we've dealt with. When it happens to other teams, it can completely change their fortunes. It really is a long season. It really is a marathon and not a sprint, and there is no good reason to lose optimism when there are still all of these games left."

The Reds will send Homer Bailey to the mound, and the right-hander is coming off one of his best outings of the year. Bailey pitched eight innings and allowed two runs -- only one of them earned -- on nine hits and two walks against the Cardinals on Sunday, picking up his third win in as many starts while lowering his ERA to 3.93.

"Homer really came through in the eighth," Reds manager Dusty Baker said Sunday. "That's what aces do. That's the time where you've got to really step up and be a man, and he did. There are some real tough hitters up there."

The Brewers, meanwhile, will give the ball to right-hander Marco Estrada, who's still looking for his first win. Estrada struck out a career-high 12 batters against Cincinnati on June 26, but the Reds have also touched him up for eight earned runs in 13 innings this season.

Brewers: Braun set to return
Braun sat out Wednesday's series finale against the Cardinals after aggravating a right groin strain during Tuesday's game. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke didn't think Braun's injury was "anything big," but he didn't want to risk further injury.

"He still felt it," Roenicke said Wednesday. "So, even though we need him in there against these guys, if he can't do it, with the off-day [Thursday], he should be good to go against Cincinnati."

• Replaced by Rodriguez as the team's closer, John Axford pitched 1 1/3 innings in relief to pick up the win Wednesday. Axford recorded the last out of the fifth inning then pitched the sixth, allowing one hit and striking out one batter. GM Doug Melvin expressed his confidence in Axford, despite the demotion.

"The reason you turn it over is because of the impatience of people -- the media, the fans, everybody else," Melvin said. "He's still got the best arm on the club.

"The idea is to get [Axford] straightened out pretty quick. ... We'll just let it play itself out. We still have confidence in his arm strength."

Reds: Baker trying to keep infielders fresh
With rookie shortstop Zack Cozart mired in a 1-for-20 slump, Reds manager Dusty Baker used Thursday's series finale as a chance to get some at-bats for his reserve infielders -- something he plans to continue doing down the stretch.

Baker expressed some concern Thursday about keeping Cozart fresh for the duration of his first full big league season. The skipper also addressed the lack of at-bats for Wilson Valdez and Miguel Cairo, something he wants to change, especially with injured first baseman Joey Votto expected to miss the next month.

"It's not only about Cozart. I've got to play Valdez too," Baker said. "Him and Miggy have the least amount of at-bats here. The other guys in the infield, have either been fortunate enough to play and not get injured or been hot enough to continue to play, like [Todd] Frazier."

Worth noting
• The Brewers on Wednesday received an extra pick between the second and third rounds of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft thanks to the inaugural Competitive Balance Draft. Milwaukee will have the fifth pick in Compensation Round B.

• Entering Thursday, the Reds' staff owned a 3.34 ERA, good for third best in the Majors behind only the Nationals and Dodgers. Cincinnati hasn't finished a season with a club ERA among the NL's top five since 2000.

• A large contingent of Reds front office personnel will be headed to Cooperstown, N.Y., on Friday and Saturday for the Hall of Fame induction of Barry Larkin. Among those attending are CEO Bob Castellini, general manager Walt Jocketty, Reds great Eric Davis and clubhouse manager Rick Stowe. Comments