Former Cubs left-hander Scott Downs shut out the Cubs on five hits in Montreal's 6-0 victory, knocking them out of the lead in the National League wild-card playoff chase for the first time since Aug. 22.
With six losses in nine games, the Cubs suddenly are gasping for air while the rest of the wild-card contenders appear calm, cool and collected.
"We all know what's at stake," manager Dusty Baker said. "Everyone in town and the whole team knows what's at stake."
The Cubs fell a half-game behind red-hot Houston and San Francisco and watched Florida move to one game behind them as they prepare for a four-game series starting with a doubleheader Friday.
"We're in great position," losing pitcher Greg Maddux said. "It's early September and we're a half-game out. We're in the middle of it, and it's exciting baseball."
The Cubs are built for power, but one of the coolest summers in memory has helped to negate that asset. They're 21-11 record at Wrigley when the wind is blowing out but only 15-15 with the wind blowing in, as it was Wednesday night.
"When the wind is blowing in, that makes it tough on us," Derrek Lee said. "But we have to find a way to get it done. There's no excuse for getting shut out."
Downs came in with a 2-5 record and 7.22 earned-run average, including 1-2 with a 9.98 ERA in his previous three starts. But the Cubs managed only two singles and a walk over the first seven innings as Downs faced the minimum 21 batters.
Mental mistakes cost the Cubs early. Moises Alou was doubled off second on a routine fly in the second and Sammy Sosa misplayed a Maicer Izturis liner in the third, turning it into a double when he broke the wrong way.
After Izturis scored on Brad Wilkerson's sacrifice fly, Maddux (13-9) retired 13 of the next 14 hitters. But Montreal scored five in the eighth to break it open. Lee's error on Endy Chavez's bases-loaded grounder brought home two runs, Paul Bako's throwing error led to another and Mike Remlinger served up a two-run homer to Terrmel Sledge.
The Cubs' inability to adjust their offensive style when the wind blows in has been a sore point with fans, who booed early and often Wednesday.
"The game changes, but your swing can't change," Baker said. "Your swing is your swing. The swing that you have, it probably took you your whole life to get that swing.
"I talked to Ferguson Jenkins about pitching when I first came here, and he told me that you don't alter your pitching style on the weather conditions. Certainly you're going to throw more strikes to a power hitter if the wind is blowing in and opposed to when the wind is blowing out, but basically you don't change the way you pitch.
"It's hard enough to hit that sucker, much less to try to hit it level or try to hit it high. There were only a couple guys I ever played with who were that good. The best thing to try to do is just hit it. We have some guys having trouble enough hitting sometimes, much less trying to change the trajectory of the hit."
The Cubs lead the National League with 198 home runs but are only seventh in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage. They hope to rebound on Friday in their first series against the World Series champion Marlins, who shocked the Cubs in last year's National League Championship Series.
"Hoping is negative," Baker said. "You have to do it. What it boils down to is you can't hope for the best. You have to do the best."