It's only mid-June, but Reds manager Bryan Price isn't making any bones about the importance of his team's upcoming road trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.
The six-game trip will be a chance for the fourth-place Reds to work their way back to .500, and more importantly, make up ground in the NL Central Division.
"We've talked about the type of start we've had and what we need to do to make up ground and so on and so forth, but truly in the end, however we get there, we need to finish at the top of the division," Price said. "That's our goal, and set the stage for the postseason. Getting further behind isn't going to help us. It's not going to make it easier."
The Reds will open their road trip on Friday with a game against the first-place Brewers, who were 7 1/2 games ahead of Cincinnati following Cincy's 4-1 win on Thursday. The Reds prevailed when the teams first met this season, taking three of four from May 1-4.
Homer Bailey will face Milwaukee's Matt Garza in the series opener. Bailey has won four straight starts, though he's 4-7 with a 5.21 ERA in 17 career starts against the Brewers.
Garza, meanwhile, has a 4-4 record, but has been more consistent of late. Since the beginning of May, he's had quality starts in five of seven appearances, including three straight.
"Some days, you don't have your best stuff and you just keep going," Garza said after his last start against the Pirates. "I've been dealing with a lot of bloop singles, especially here in Pittsburgh, so just keep going and not make too big a deal about it."
After a 5-5 homestand, the Reds could set a positive tone for this trip by breaking through against Garza.
"It's a long season, and we've all seen every variation of how teams fall out of things or get back in things," Price said. "I think it would be great to go in there and beat up on these next two opponents and do some positive things for our position in the division, but is it going to define [the pennant race]? No. It'd be great to go in there and kick everyone's butt, but it's hard to say if it's going to define the race. We'd certainly feel a lot better if we went in there and won, I'll tell you that."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has made clear his desire for more consistent performances from his starting staff, and straightening out Garza would go a long way toward that goal.
Garza (4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) is a week and a half removed from 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball against the Twins. His last time out, though, he surrendered three runs on six hits while striking out one and walking five in six innings.
Reds: Bruce benefiting from selectivity at plate
After struggling through the season's first two months, outfielder Jay Bruce seems to have gotten rolling in June, batting .273 through his first 10 games this month. His overall average is .212.
Price said increased selectivity at the plate has helped Bruce improve. He ended May at .197.
"We know his history. It's inevitable, in my opinion, that he's going to go on one of those runs and do a lot more damage than he's done to this point," Price said. "It looks like he's beginning to break out in that regard. It doesn't have to be homers. It just can be hard-hit balls to center and down the right-field line -- productive at-bats.
"Being a little more discerning at the plate is also good -- getting pitches to hit and taking advantage of it."
Brewers: Wang's opportunities limited
Rookie Wei-Chung Wang has pitched once this month -- and nine times in 2014 -- and given the 22-year-old's inexperience, Roenicke has had a hard time finding opportunities for the left-hander.
Wang was Rule 5 Draft pick from the Pirates last December, and he has to stay on the 25-man roster or else Milwaukee will have to return him to Pittsburgh. Innings have been hard to come by, and they haven't always gone easy when Wang does get in. He's allowed 18 runs in 12 2/3 innings (12.79 ERA) while posting a 2.53 WHIP.
"He goes long stretches where he doesn't pitch, and then I get him in there and he's not quite right with his command, which is expected," Roenicke said. "It's a tough situation for him to try to develop a lot of things. He's doing a good job throwing bullpens. It's tough for him to get in the work, all the work he needs to keep developing. And yet, he's a guy that we like and would like to keep here if we can."
Wang pitched in rookie ball with the Pirates organization last season.
• The Reds have won or split eight of their last 12 series against Milwaukee, including five of the last eight. This weekend marks the second of six series between the teams in 2014.
• Milwaukee has won nine of its last 13 games at Miller Park. This series is the team's only relief in a stretch where 15 of 18 games are on the road.
Caitlin Swieca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.