A nagging back injury has made Ryan Braun a rarity in Milwaukee's lineup recently.
The Brewers hope their All-Star slugger can return Friday night as they look to continue their home dominance of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game set.Braun has missed consecutive games, and hasn't started nine of the last 11 since tightness in his lower back forced him to exit a 6-0 win over Washington on Aug. 9.The left fielder started Tuesday's 9-3 win over Houston, but had to be removed after re-aggravating the injury on a strikeout. The Brewers have managed to go 6-3 without him starting, including a 5-2 win over the Astros on Wednesday.Milwaukee, however, would much prefer to have Braun in the lineup. He's 10-for-28 (.357) with two homers and four RBIs in his last eight games, with the Brewers going 6-2 over that span.Braun is batting .300 with team highs of 31 home runs and 86 RBIs after posting a .324 average with 34 homers and 97 RBIs last season, when he won the NL Rookie of the Year award.The Brewers (73-55) hope Braun's expected return Friday can help them extend their home winning streak to 10 games over the Pirates (57-70). Milwaukee has taken 20 of the last 26 meetings at Miller Park, sweeping a three-game series there from July 4-6.The Brewers lead the season series 5-1, and Braun has been a big part of that success, going 10-for-25 (.400) with one homer and three RBIs against Pittsburgh this year.Whether Braun plays or not, Milwaukee will send a hot pitcher to the mound in Dave Bush (7-9, 4.26 ERA), who's 2-0 with a 1.77 ERA in his last three starts.The right-hander has pitched at least seven innings in five of his last seven games, going 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA in that span. The stretch started July 5 against the Pirates, when he allowed one run and four hits in eight innings of a 2-1 victory, although he didn't get the decision.Bush went seven innings again Saturday, yielding two runs and five hits in a 4-3, 10-inning win at Los Angeles.Lengthy outings have been almost routine for Milwaukee this season. Brewers starters lead the NL with 792 2-3 innings and have pitched at least six innings in 15 of the last 17 contests, providing ample rest for manager Ned Yost's bullpen. Brewers relievers are at the bottom of the league with 353 1-3 innings."There's a lot of teams complaining right now that their bullpen is worn out," Yost told the team's official Web site. "For us, it's grossly the other way."So here we come into September with a very strong bullpen, a bullpen that's almost borderline rusty when other bullpens are borderline worn out."The Pirates will be looking to rebound from Wednesday's 11-2 loss at St. Louis, their fifth defeat in seven games.Ryan Doumit has been a rare bright spot for Pittsburgh this season, going 6-for-8 with a homer and three RBIs in the last two games to raise his average to .339 -- tops among major league catchers."Who cares?" Doumit said after Wednesday's loss. "It has nothing to do with the game. It doesn't matter how good anybody did at the plate."Pittsburgh will hand the ball to Zach Duke (4-11, 5.26), who's 0-7 with a 6.65 ERA in his last 12 starts and has allowed 13 homers in his last eight. The rough stretch includes an 11-6 loss at Milwaukee on July 6, when the left-hander gave up six runs in 2 1-3 innings, including a homer to Braun. Duke didn't factor in the decision.Duke is 0-3 with a 7.76 ERA in six games at Miller Park.