Central defense dwindles

Chicago CubsCrimeCrime, Law and JusticeTodd WalkerPaul BakoNational LeagueJim Edmonds

With only four games remaining against St. Louis and a seven-game deficit in the National League Central, the Cubs will need plenty of help in the second half if they hope to repeat as division champions.

The Cardinals dealt the Cubs their fourth straight loss Friday night, 6-1, at Busch Stadium, quickly making the division race seem like an afterthought.

At what point do they have to start thinking wild card?

"You don't start thinking wild card until someone clinches," Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee said. "That's so far away. Right now you just worry about winning games."

The shock of the sweep by the Milwaukee Brewers still was being felt Friday after another listless performance.

The first-place Cardinals cranked out four home runs off Greg Maddux and Jon Leicester, while St. Louis starter Jason Marquis (9-4) earned his sixth straight triumph by holding the Cubs to one run on nine hits in eight innings.

The Cubs were left to regroup in the final two games before the All-Star break to go into the second half of the season with some momentum.

"We're in good shape," Maddux said. "I don't know what the wild-card stuff is, but the division is still within reach."

Maddux (7-7) served up solo home runs to Edgar Renteria, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, giving him 20 home runs allowed in 18 first-half starts.

Last year with Atlanta Maddux gave up a career-high 24 homers in 36 starts.

"Some [pitches] were supposed to be in different areas, and [hitters aren't] missing," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "It's kind of like Groundhog Day—like the day before and the day before that."

The Cubs are hitting .215 in six games since Aramis Ramirez went out with a groin injury, scoring two or fewer runs in five of those games.

They hit into three double plays Friday and scored their only run on Lee's homer off Marquis in the second.

Baker took umbrage before the game at the suggestion his team appeared lethargic.

"My team is never lethargic," Baker said. "Good pitching makes you look lethargic. What can you do when you're not getting on base? They can say I'm lethargic—'Why didn't you do something, like hit-and-run?'

"What can you do? It's hard to hit-and-run and steal when you have nobody on base. Were the Cardinals lethargic when they got swept by Pittsburgh?

"I didn't know until [Friday] that [Wednesday's loss in Milwaukee] was the first time we have been swept since I've been here. That isn't bad in itself. The timing was bad. The timing was horrible."

Baker's lineup on Friday wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut. Todd Walker, who has hit .351 in his last 20 games, was on the bench for the sixth time in eight games.

With Ramirez out, light-hitting Rey Ordonez (.154) was at short so Ramon Martinez could play third, and catcher Paul Bako (.186) was behind the plate as Maddux's personal catcher.

Add to that the recent slumps of Moises Alou, who's hitting .198 since June 1, and Sammy Sosa, who's hitting .230 since returning from the disabled list in mid-June, and the offense is on life support.

"What we need is one of those innings where we get four, five, six hits in a row," Lee said. "Put up three or four runs and get the confidence back in the dugout. That's what would spark us.

"I wouldn't say we're putting pressure on ourselves. We don't want to be seven games back, but there are still a lot of games to play.

"St. Louis is playing great right now. There will be a time when they go through a little rut. The only problem is seven games back, you can't afford any more ruts."

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