By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 30, 2008 at 5:16 AM

Ladies and gentlemen, let the pennant race begin.

Even with a 5-0 loss Sunday at Minnesota, the Brewers are still the hottest team in baseball, having won 24 of 37 games since being swept by the Boston Red Sox in late May.

Now at the mathematical midway point of the 2008 Major League Baseball season, the Brewers are 44-37, four-and-a-half games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central Division.

Owners of the National League's third-best record, the Brewers trail St. Louis by just two games in the wild-card race.

There are still about two weeks to go until the All-Star break, but the Brewers are in pretty good position to make a run at the post-season.

After playing a four-game set at Arizona this week, the Brewers return home and finish out the traditional first half with nine games at Miller Park against Pittsburgh, Colorado and Cincinnati; three of the worst teams in the NL this season.

The Brewers play 43 of their final 81 games at home, where they have the second-most victories of any team in the league.

In terms of gaining ground on the Cardinals and Cubs; the second-half schedule includes six games against St. Louis, though all of those are at Busch Stadium and 10 games against the Cubs with only three of those contests being played at Wrigley Field (where, by the way, the Brewers handed their rivals four of their 10 home losses this season).

In a nutshell, the season is just getting started.

Swinging a big bat: The Brewers were struggling offensively when they called Russell Branyan up from Class AAA Nashville, where he was hitting .359 with 12 homers and 36 RBI.

Since joining the club on May 25, Branyan has hit more home runs (11) and has the highest slugging percentage (.747) in the National League.

As they were during Branyan's previous stint in Milwaukee (2004-'05), strikeouts are a problem. The hard-hitting left-hander has whiffed 31 times in 86 at-bats, but has also managed to draw 13 walks this year while posting a .279 average.

Branyan was a longshot to see the majors this season when he met with general manager Doug Melvin during spring training. Brewers management didn't see room for him on the big-league club, but signed him to a minor-league deal and sent him to Nashville, where Branyan resides.

"We got lucky there," Yost told "It was a little bit of vision from Doug, seeing that you could have Russell in the system in case something happened.

"It just worked out."

More power: The Brewers' offense is beginning to resemble the lineup that crushed the ball a year ago.

Milwaukee was 26-28 in its first 54 games while hitting 55 home runs. Since then, the Brewers have belted 49 home runs and posted an 18-9 record during that stretch.

Since May 30, they've hit four or more home runs four five times and have 26 multi-homer games.

Gagne back: Eric Gagne was reinstated from the disabled list following Sunday's game. He was out with tendonitis in his right rotator cuff since May 23.

Gagne, signed to a $10 million contract last winter, will move into a setup role for Solomon Torres, who is 12-for-12 in save opportunities since replacing Gagne, who converted 10 of 15 chances before being injured.

He made two rehabilitation appearances with Nashville and threw a bullpen session Sunday at the Metrodome before being reinstated.

To make room for Gagne on the active roster, right-handed reliever Mark DiFelice was optioned to Nashville, where he will be used in a starting role.

Making his case: Speaking of Sheets, the righty continues to make a case to be named the National League's starter in next month's All-Star Game.

Even with a sub-par outing Sunday at the Metrodome, Sheets is among the league leaders with nine victories, a 2.83 ERA and three complete games.

Quick hits: Brewers starters are 17-7 with a 3.18 ERA in the team's last 30 games. They've made 21 quality starts during that stretch. ... Milwaukee went 6-8 this season in Interleague play. ... Dave Bush is 4-0 against Arizona in his career. He will get the start on Monday. ... Prior to Sunday, CF Mike Cameron has just 12 hits in his last 71 at-bats (.169).

On the farm: 3B Mat Gamel and OF Matt LaPorta of Class AA Huntsville will represent the Brewers in the All-Star Futures game next month at Yankee Stadium.

This week: The Brewers wrap up their nine-game road trip with a four-game series at Arizona before returning home Friday to open a nine-game homestand with three games against Pittsburgh.

N.L. Central standings: 1, Chicago, 49-33; 2, St. Louis, 47-36 (-2.5); 3, Milwaukee, 44-37 (-4.5); 4, Houston, 39-43 (-10); 5, Pittsburgh, 38-43 (-10.5); 6, Cincinnati, 38-45 (-11.5).

N.L. Wild Card standings: 1, St. Louis, 47-36; 2, Milwaukee, 44-37 (-2); 3, Florida, 42-39 (-4); 4, New York, 40-41 (-6); 5, Atlanta, 40-43 (-7).