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09/20/12 10:38 PM ET

Axford: Greinke trade sharpened focus

PITTSBURGH -- Here's a funny theory proposed by closer John Axford for the Brewers' amazing surge into contention:

The Zack Greinke trade did it.

That seems like a strange hypothesis, considering Greinke was the Brewers' best starting pitcher on July 27, the day he was traded to the Angels. But Axford believes that it quietly propelled the rest of the team forward.

"Personally, I thought it was going to be more motivation for certain guys," Axford said. "There wasn't ever a thought on this team that this was a lost season. It was disappointing for a while and things weren't looking well, they were looking pretty bleak. But there's no guy on this team that's going to lie down and give up. It's shown recently."

The Brewers finished a 9-7 victory Thursday with 23 wins in their last 29 games and had climbed from 12 1/2 games out of a National League Wild Card to within 2 1/2 games. Wednesday's winning pitcher, Marco Estrada, said the atmosphere has changed noticeably.

"Everything has changed," Estrada said. "I feel like, out in the dugout, the vibe is a lot better. We're a lot more outspoken. We're pumping everybody up. That's the difference from then and now."

Hart's foot healed to point where he can return

PITTSBURGH -- His left foot was taped tighter than an offensive lineman's, but Corey Hart was back in the Brewers' lineup on Thursday.

The first baseman had missed eight games with a painful injury to his left arch, but he felt good enough in running drills Wednesday afternoon to play the first 4 1/2 innings of the team's 9-7 win Thursday against the Pirates.

Hart announced his return Thursday by lining the first pitch he saw from Pittsburgh left-hander Wandy Rodriguez into center field for a single.

"It's going to hurt, but if I can handle it enough I can play as long as I can," he said. "We're never going to know if I can do it if I don't get out there. The pain is going to be there all the time, but I can do some things to adjust and make it not as bad."

The trouble for Hart is not running in straight lines, but making turns around the bases. He worked on Wednesday at shuffling in such a way to minimize the pain.

Hart said he hoped it was "good enough."

"He was at a point yesterday when he was running that he thought he could do it, and Dan [Wright, the Brewers' head athletic trainer] was comfortable with it," manager Ron Roenicke said. "So we'll see how far we go with him. I won't go nine innings with him."

Roenicke kept his word, removing Hart after a fifth-inning strikeout. Hart batted in his usual five-hole on Thursday and is hitting .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs.

The danger, of course, is that Hart could worsen the injury, which is technically a partial tear to his plantar fascia -- tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot. He said Thursday that he was unsure whether he'd need offseason surgery.

Aoki receiving Rookie of the Year billing

PITTSBURGH -- Don't forget outfielder Norichika Aoki in the National League Rookie of the Year race, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke urged voters on Thursday.

Aoki bolstered his manager's case by leading off Thursday's 9-7 win over the Pirates with a single, giving him his fourth hitting streak of at least 10 games this season. The last to do that was the Cardinals' Bake McBride in 1974, and McBride won NL rookie honors that season.

Yet Aoki is considered an underdog to other NL rookies, including Cincinnati's Todd Frazier, Arizona's Wade Miley and the rookie with the best name recognition but not the best numbers: Washington's Bryce Harper.

"He definitely needs to be talked about," Roenicke said of Aoki. "I think when you look at Frazier's numbers, I think those numbers are a little bit ahead of everybody. But if you look at what Nori has done for us, and you take his defense, also, take his base-stealing and baserunning -- how do you compare a guy with RBIs [to] a leadoff guy?

Roenicke's bottom line: "What Nori is doing for us definitely should get him into that talk."

Aoki has boosted his average to .293, with nine home runs and 46 RBIs while batting mostly as a leadoff man. His 28 stolen bases led NL rookies.

Frazier finished Thursday hitting .280 with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs. Miley, a left-hander, was 15-10 with a 3.10 ERA.

Aoki is different from those players in that he spent seven seasons in Japan before the Brewers signed him to a two-year contract last winter.

"I don't think of him as a rookie, but I understand the difficulty in coming over here your first year, trying to adapt to everything," Roenicke said. "That's hard, to put that on a player. He's got to perform, but he's got to adapt to everything we do. I think that's an important thing to consider."

Aramis ties Santo for homers by third baseman

PITTSBURGH -- Aramis Ramirez hit a milestone home run during a 9-7 win Thursday that meant much more considering the other name in the discussion.

With his 337th career blast as a third baseman, Ramirez tied Hall of Famer Ron Santo for sixth place on the all-time list for homers from that position. The two became close after Ramirez was traded in 2003 to Chicago, where Santo was the Cubs' radio analyst.

"I was a big fan of Ron Santo all my years in Chicago," Ramirez said. "He was a great guy, always in the clubhouse, trying to give me advice, make me a better player. I admire the way he treated young players in Chicago."

Santo was posthumously inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, an honor Ramirez called, "deserving."

Ramirez actually has 340 career home runs -- he also homered twice as a pinch-hitter and once as a designated hitter in Interleague Play. Santo hit 342 homers in his career.

Brewers set postseason ticketing plan

PITTSBURGH -- A month ago, it seemed impossible, but on Thursday, the Brewers announced plans for a postseason ticket lottery.

Before fans scream about jinxes, this is standard operating procedure for Major League teams bidding for the playoffs. Because of the logistics involved and the extremely short gap between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, they regularly begin selling playoff tickets well in advance of a team clinching its spot.

Beginning Monday at noon CT, fans can log onto Brewers.com/postseason and look for the link to "Postseason Single Game Ticketing Opportunity" to register.

For complete details, see the Brewers' press release from Thursday morning.

Last call

Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez fouled a pitch off his foot early in Thursday's 9-7 win over the Pirates and was to undergo X-rays at PNC Park. Manager Ron Roenicke said Gomez's status would be evaluated on Friday before the start of a four-game series in Washington.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.