The Cardinals aren't in the postseason yet, but their upcoming schedule looks a lot like what they could face if they wind up reaching that goal.
St. Louis will open a four-game series against the Braves on Thursday night at Busch Stadium, kicking off a stretch of 17 consecutive games against National League playoff contenders. After taking on Atlanta -- keepers of the best record in the Majors -- the Redbirds will play four straight series against either the Pirates or Reds, whom they're battling atop the National League Central.
It's a piece of the schedule that could go a long way toward shaping the division and Wild Card races.
"Yeah, I'd imagine," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But that's not anything we focus too much on. We've been very consistent of looking out at what field we're on today, and this is the one that matters. Take care of today."
St. Louis, which is one game behind Pittsburgh and 1 1/2 ahead of Cincinnati in the NL Central, beat Milwaukee to finish its road trip 4-2.
Atlanta pulled out a dramatic 10-inning win over the Mets on Wednesday in New York to improve to 6-4 since its 14-game winning streak ended. The victory was costly, however, as right fielder Jason Heyward suffered a fractured right jaw after being hit by a pitch from the Mets' Jon Niese. He likely will miss four to six weeks.
The good news for the Braves is that they get left-hander Paul Maholm back from the disabled list on Thursday. Maholm (9-9, 4.41 ERA) will take on the Cardinals' Joe Kelly after missing a little more than a month with a bruised left wrist.
Maholm was hit hard in his last three starts before the DL stint, giving up 15 earned runs on 23 hits over 13 1/3 innings. He made one Minor League rehab start, with Class A Rome on Saturday, and came away feeling good about his command. He gave up one run on four hits over 5 2/3 innings, with no walks and six strikeouts.
"It's been a month. Like I said early on, I'm not a very good DL patient," Maholm said. "I'm just looking forward to just getting back in there and competing, and obviously we've been playing well. So obviously it's been fun to watch, but it's going to be better to be a part of it."
Kelly has proven to be a stabilizing force since joining the Cardinals' rotation in early July. He has gone 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA, and St. Louis has won six of his seven outings. The 25-year-old owns a 3.21 ERA in 24 career starts, compared with a 3.61 mark in 29 relief appearances.
Kelly's recent run included 6 1/3 scoreless innings on July 27 at Atlanta, and six scoreless frames on Saturday at Wrigley Field. He held the Cubs to four hits and three walks while striking out six.
"We didn't know necessarily what we were going to do, and he's stepped up and taken advantage of it and been one of those guys who, you can tell, he can't wait to get the ball," Matheny said. "When he goes out there with that kind of confidence, it just transfers over to everybody else. And he's getting better."
Braves: Scary moment for Heyward
Since he was moved to the leadoff spot on July 27, Heyward had hit .353/.421/.600 over a 22-game span going into Wednesday. Now, the Braves figure to be without his services until at least mid-September.
Heyward was facing Niese in the sixth inning of Wednesday's game at Citi Field when the left-hander's pitch veered inside and caught Heyward on the side of the head, perhaps getting at least some of the ear flap of his batting helmet.
Heyward immediately went down, and head trainer Jeff Porter rushed out to treat him, accompanied by manager Fredi Gonzalez. He eventually walked off with a little help from Porter but was spitting out blood. Heyward was taken to the hospital to undergo X-rays and further tests, which revealed two fractures in his right jaw.
• Left fielder Justin Upton missed his second straight game with a left upper back strain, an injury he suffered while taking swings in the batting cage before Tuesday's contest.
Cardinals: More Molina
Catcher Yadier Molina was in the lineup again on Wednesday against the Brewers, his fifth straight start and sixth in seven games since he came off the DL on Aug. 15. He went 0-for-4 after going 10-for-23 with two home runs in his first five games back.
When Molina first returned, general manager John Mozeliak said the team needed to be cautious with the All-Star backstop's playing time. But Matheny has continued to put Molina's name on his lineup card, thanks to positive input from the team's medical staff and Molina himself.
"Every game is important," Molina said. "Starting from today, every game is important, so we take every game seriously and try to win every game."
• The Braves swept a three-game series from the Cardinals in Atlanta in late July, holding them to three total runs. They also swept three during their series at Busch Stadium last year.
• The quintet of Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Molina has combined for eight home runs in 117 at-bats against Maholm.