After entering August with wild-card aspirations, the Chicago Cubs now have their sights set on first place in the National League Central.
Chicago will look to continue its climb to the top of the division on Friday when it visits the Cincinnati Reds in a day-night doubleheader to open a four-game series.
Things were looking somewhat bleak for the Cubs (71-62) by the end of July, as they had dropped consecutive games to fall to 53-53. But Chicago surged in August, going 18-9 to pull within three games of the NL Central-leading Brewers.
The Cubs capped the month in style, beating Milwaukee 3-2 on Wednesday to steal a critical three-game series.
"We believe the division is reachable," Chicago center fielder Cody Bellinger said. "We've thought that for a while. It's definitely something that we as a group have strived for since spring training.
"We've got a whole month left, though, and against some really good teams. So we've just got to continue playing our game."
Left-hander Jordan Wicks (1-0, 1.80 ERA) will look to help the Cubs begin September on a high note when he makes the second start of his major league career to open Friday's doubleheader.
Wicks was strong in his debut on Saturday, allowing one run on two hits in five innings of a 10-6 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Right-hander Graham Ashcraft (7-8, 4.73) will get the nod in the opener for the Reds, who remain in contention for a playoff berth despite losing five of their last seven games.
Cincinnati (69-66) is just one game behind the San Francisco Giants for the third and final NL wild-card spot entering play Thursday. The Reds are also sitting just three games back from Chicago.
Although Cincinnati has hit a bit of a rough patch, manager David Bell is still confident that his club can reach the playoffs just one year after a 100-loss season.
"Sometimes, you get challenged a little bit more, and if you can survive that and continue to do what you do and be yourself and stay together as a team, that's how you get through these stretches," Bell said. "And sooner than later, it'll turn a little bit and get a little bit easier.
"We've got a long way to go, a lot to look forward to and a lot of fun to be had this last month."
Ashcraft certainly could help spur a turnaround after quality starts in nine of his last 10 outings. He is 4-2 with a 2.49 ERA during that span and most recently allowed two runs on seven hits in 6 2/3 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.
In five career starts against the Cubs, Ashcraft is 1-4 with a 10.38 ERA.
Neither team officially has named a starter for the nightcap. Chicago is expected to turn to Caleb Kilian (0-1, 16.88), while the Reds likely will give the ball to fellow right-hander Ben Lively (4-7, 5.17).
Kilian hasn't pitched since Aug. 13, when he allowed three runs in an inning of relief against the Blue Jays. He has never faced Cincinnati.
Lively gave up three runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings against the Diamondbacks last Saturday. He is 0-2 with a 19.00 ERA in two career starts versus the Cubs.
—Field Level Media