Third place doesn’t doesn’t seem like much of a prize, particularly in the National League Central. But it could mark the way to bigger and better thingsin the future. Relative to the past few years, Pittsburgh is on its way up. Milwaukee has seen better days, although this relationship is the reverse of what has happened this year.

Going into tonight’s game, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers have identical records, 74-72. Pittsburgh has actually done better against the rest of the National League, 70-64, versus 66-68 for the Brewers. But Milwaukee leads the two teams’ season series eight to four.

On paper, Milwaukee looks like the more powerful team.They’ve scored the third most runs (701) in the majors. Old standbys such as 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez have been joined by rookie Norichika Aoki among the league’s best hitters. The Pirates, meanwhile, are in the bottom third offensively, although they have their own MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen.

To balance this, the Pirates seem to have a much better rotation. However, if you take the Brewers’ Randy Wolf (whose 5.69  ERA skews up the team ERA) out of the equation, the two teams’ starting pitching is almost evenly matched. This explains Milwaukee’s advantage.

The Brewers have scored 41 runs more than they have allowed, a differential that suggests that they should be more than two games above .500. The Pirates have scored four fewer runs than they have allowed, which suggests that should be a bit below breakeven. The Pirates are just luckier in close games, while they tend to lose bigger when they lose.

To see the Pirates neck-and-neck with the Brewers this late in the season is more than many Pirate fans, including yours truly, would have hoped at the beginning of the season. That’s because they have been doing quite well against the rest of the league.

But for Pittsburgh to be a true contender, they have to win more than five games a season against Milwaukee, which they have not done since 2006. They can start by winning this series, particularly since it’s at home, and lay a foundation for 2013.

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