This was not how the Cubs wanted to start the last series before the All-Star break.
Albert Pujols belted his 32nd home run and added an RBI triple to raise his Major League-leading RBI total to 85, and Ryan Ludwick drove in four runs to power the St. Louis Cardinals to an 8-3 victory Friday over the Cubs.
"It was embarrassing today," Cubs starter Rich Harden said. "We were outplayed, outhustled. It can't happen. They outplayed us."
With the loss, the Cubs are 4 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central. The two will play three more games before the break.
"I don't know about urgent, but it's important," said Derrek Lee, who hit a three-run homer for all the Cubs' offense. "These are important games. Just like that, you're 4 1/2 back. These are important games, and we have to play well the last three."
Lee's homer in the third, his 17th, tied the game. St. Louis had taken a 3-0 lead after Ludwick hit a sacrifice fly in the first, and Pujols hit an RBI triple in the third, then scored on Ludwick's single. Pujols answered Lee's blast with a leadoff homer in the Cardinals' fifth, driving the ball into the basket rimming the bleachers in straightaway center for a 4-3 lead.
Then came an ugly sixth. St. Louis loaded the bases against Aaron Heilman, and Ludwick hit a two-run single. He moved up to second on an error by third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who dropped a relay throw. Rick Ankiel then walked, and Yadier Molina blooped a ball to left-center. Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Theriot and Reed Johnson converged, and Soriano called the others off. But he didn't make the play.
"I saw the popup and I ran hard to catch it," Soriano said, "and at the last moment I took my eyes off the ball and I dropped it."
Molina was safe and another run scored, but Soriano did get Ankiel at second. Ludwick then scored on a wild pitch by Heilman. Suddenly, it was 8-3.
"It wasn't a very good inning, to say the least," manager Lou Piniella said. "It just wasn't a very good game."
Harden wasn't sharp and had problems with his location and command, which is not a good situation.
"You want to come out and set a tone for the series and the rest of the season," Harden said. "You can't give a team like that more chances. They play hard, they run the bases, they do everything right. You have to give everything you've got. That's all you can control. Every five days, I'm giving it everything I've got, and it hasn't been enough yet. We'll come back after the All-Star break here and regroup."
They've got some catching up to do.
"If we don't win these games, it could be very ugly," Soriano said.
If the Cubs are swept by the Cardinals, they could be 7 1/2 back at the break.
"All you can do is look for the next three days and hope to get back on track," Theriot said. "Chris [Carpenter] threw the ball well and held us down. I thought we had something going there when [Lee] got the big home run. Hopefully, we can get back on track tomorrow."
This is the third straight series in which the Cardinals have won the first game. It does set the tone.
"I feel like that's an important deal when it comes to three- or four-game series, getting out on top," Ludwick said. "Thus far, the road trip has gone well. It's a little early to get relaxed, obviously. We have three games left here, and we need to come out and try to play our best baseball until we get to the break."
Carpenter (7-3) struck out six over six innings for his second win against the Cubs this year. Harden (5-6) served up four runs, seven hits and four walks over five innings and disappointed Piniella, who expected more from the right-hander, who was pitching on extra rest.
As for being disappointed in the team's performance, Piniella tried to downplay Friday's loss.
"Are we pleased with the way we played? No, not today," Piniella said. "But we'll come out and play tomorrow. That's all you can do, nothing more."
They can't walk nine batters and make errors, especially against the Cardinals. There are 79 more games to play.
"You want to win them, you can't put the weight of the world on your shoulders," Theriot said. "We need to approach each game like a playoff game, and if we do that, we'll be OK."