After being stir-fried by the Cardinals on a steamy Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, the Cubs were left searching for answers in the wreckage of a once-promising division race.
Matt Clement gave up three runs in the first inning and watched his offense do its disappearing act in a 5-2 loss. Their fifth straight loss put the reeling Cubs eight games behind the first-place Cardinals in the NL Central.
Jeff Suppan (8-5) held the Cubs to two runs on seven hits through six innings and five Cardinals relievers shut them out in the final three innings, with Jason Isringhausen recording his 21st save.
The Cubs have scored four runs in their losing streak, hitting .200.
"Anytime you lose five in a row, if you aren't frustrated, something is wrong with you," Clement said.
"I'm frustrated. But all that means is you keep working hard and battling and keep going out there."
With his lineup thirsting for runs, Cubs manager Dusty Baker inserted Corey Patterson into the No. 3 hole and moved Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou down a spot, batting cleanup and fifth, respectively.
Sosa went 2-for-4 with a double and a solo home run, but Patterson and Alou combined to go 0-for-8.
Alou is now 0-for-13 on the trip and hitting .192 since June 1.
Baker couldn't remember the last time one of his teams struggled so much.
"Not in a while," he said. "We picked a bad time to do it. We all kind of went cold at the same time."
Call it the "Ramirez Factor."
The Cubs were two games above .500 with Mark Prior on the disabled list, two games above with Sosa on the DL, and are two games above since Kerry Wood was sidelined on May 11.
But since Aramis Ramirez went down with a groin injury July 2, they're 2-7.
"We need Aramis, no question," Sosa said. "We need everybody. The way things are going right now, we'll take anything to help the ballclub. But that's baseball. There are a lot of surprises. Right now we're not playing at the level we're supposed to be at, but everything will be OK."
If it seems like only a few weeks ago the Cubs and Cardinals were fighting for first place, that's because it was.
On June 23 at Busch, the Cubs scored six runs in the sixth inning to take a 9-5 lead, looking to move into a first-place tie. But the bullpen collapsed and the Cubs lost 10-9. They have gone 6-10 since that night.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 13-3 since that comeback and will ride an eight-game winning streak into the final game of the first half Sunday night.
Kerry Wood will make his first start in two months, facing the Cardinals' hottest starter, Chris Carpenter.
In his 34-pitch first inning Saturday, Clement walked leadoff man Tony Womack and sent him to third on a wild pickoff throw. After Ray Lankford's bloop single scored Womack, Jim Edmonds drilled a two-out home run over the right-field fence to make it 3-0.
Trailing 3-2 in the seventh, the Cubs put the tying run on second with one out. But Ray King retired pinch-hitter Tom Goodwin on a grounder to second and Julian Tavarez induced Mark Grudzielanek, batting for Todd Walker, to pop behind home plate.
Brendan Harris drew a leadoff walk to start the eighth, but Patterson hit into a force against Steve Kline and Isringhausen got Sosa to pop behind home plate. Alou then tapped to short for a force at second, ending the inning.
Glendon Rusch gave up two runs in the eighth, ending the suspense.
"There are not too many teams, maybe one or two, that might be within three-four games of the Cardinals if they were in our division," Clement said. "It's not the end of the world. We have to find a way to start winning."