ST. LOUIS -- As the All-Star break fast approaches, St. Louis and Milwaukee find themselves in a battle to the first-half finish line.
The Brewers will enter the final series of the first half against the Cardinals hoping they can hang on to their first-place lead in the National League Central as a five-game losing streak has brought the Cardinals within two games of first. The Cards, meanwhile, will be fighting to overtake the division.
"You start the season realizing that there's different plateaus that you're trying to get to, and one of them is that All-Star break," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "We've got a large group of guys that need that time and realize this is a push time where you just keep going. Hopefully we'll keep going in a positive direction."
The Cardinals will seek to move in that positive direction without their most indispensable player after they learned Thursday that catcher Yadier Molina will miss 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
While the Brewers have lost eight of nine games to start July, the Cardinals have taken advantage, winning six of 10 to gain 4 1/2 games on the divisional leaders.
"Probably terms I've used is we're searching, searching," Matheny said. "We're also in a pretty good spot. You look where we are in comparison to a lot of other teams in the game right now, and as much as it may not feel like that, we're in a spot where we just need to keep playing good baseball."
The Brewers, who have been in sole possession of first place since April 9, have hit a recent downturn as the offense has gone cold. The Crew's offense has averaged just 2.2 runs per game in July, scoring two or fewer runs in seven of nine games to start the month.
"We've got a club coming in that wants our spot, and we've got to just start fighting," said Brewers starter Matt Garza, who started Thursday. "Teams go through this type of stuff. It's called adversity. Good teams come out of it. We've got three games against one of our rivals coming, and we can pick up ground."
That will have to come behind Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, who has quality starts in five of his last six outings. Gallardo has made 18 career starts against the Cardinals and hasn't fared well, going 1-11 with a 6.34 ERA.
Cardinals: Kelly returns to the mound where he left off
Nearly three months ago, on April 16, Joe Kelly hustled down the first-base line in Milwaukee in an attempt to beat out a bunt. The right-hander came up lame, exiting with a strained left hamstring that would sideline him until now.
Kelly made three rehab starts beginning in late June, the latest a 4 1/3-inning outing where he allowed one run Sunday on 72 pitches. He expects to be able to stretch out to as many as 90 on Friday.
"I quickly got better, started locating with my fastball a little better, throwing my offspeed over the plate for a strike," Kelly said of his rehab. "I think every time I went out there, I got better and stronger."
Before going on the disabled list for nearly three months, Kelly had allowed one earned run in 15 1/3 innings over three starts. He doesn't expect the hamstring to be in his head, and said he isn't thinking about returning to the site of the injury.
"It's something I'm not going to try to think about," Kelly said. "That's come around my attention, people have joked around about it. I would like to just start the game in the fourth inning with no injury. It's not something I'm going to think about."
Brewers: Club alters weekend rotation
Right-hander Marco Estrada, whose 27 home runs allowed are by far the most in the Majors, was scheduled to start Saturday's game against the Cardinals, but he has been bumped to the bullpen. Top pitching prospect Jimmy Nelson was summoned Thursday night from Triple-A Nashville to start in his place.
Estrada is 7-6, but his 4.96 ERA is more than a run higher than any other Brewers starter. He took the loss Monday against the Phillies, allowing three runs in six innings, including a two-run homer in the first inning to Chase Utley.
Nelson has a 1.46 ERA in 17 appearances (16 starts) at Triple-A.
Manager Ron Roenicke said prior to Thursday's game that waiting until the All-Star break to make a change wasn't necessary.
"It's not important," Roenicke said. "Sometimes you wait until the All-Star break to do things, but I think when the timing calls for something to be done, I think you try to do it. If it makes sense right then, why wait on something if it makes sense to do it?"
• Kelly tossed four scoreless innings against Milwaukee during his April start before injuring his hamstring. He has a 4.17 ERA in nine career appearances (six starts) against the Brewers.
• The Brewers are 24-22 at home this season, but are currently riding a season-high five-game losing streak at Miller Park.
Alex Halsted is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.