Good till the last squeeze

The Cubs know deep down they no longer are considered realistic contenders for the Central Division title, and the St. Louis Cardinals are probably even more certain of that than the Cubs.

But as the two longtime rivals met for the 2,161st time Friday night at Busch Stadium, no one cared to state the obvious.

"They have to play poorly and have some injuries and we have to play great and not have any injuries," manager Dusty Baker said. "As long as you're not mathematically eliminated, you always have a chance."

But when the Cubs fell 14 games behind the Cardinals after an agonizing, 2-1, 11-inning loss on a steamy night, their chances were about the same as a snowball's in St. Louis.

David Eckstein's suicide squeeze bunt back to Sergio Mitre brought home pinch-runner Hector Luna with the winning run with one out in 11th, after John Mabry led off the inning with a triple. Luna scored without a throw from Mitre.

"We knew they were probably going to squeeze with [Eckstein]," Baker said. "We just didn't know when. I didn't think they were going to do it right then."

Catcher Michael Barrett said they had Mitre try to throw either high or low to avoid the suicide squeeze, but Mitre threw it over the plate on a 1-1 pitch.

"That place is so loud, you really have to go off the hitter," Barrett said. "If the hitter makes any move on a bunt, that's how you defend that. They still have to get the bat head out in front."

The Cubs have lost three straight since winning 8 of 9 games, and continue to struggle in Busch, where they are now 11-33 since 2000.

"We have to put the ball in play more," starter Carlos Zambrano said. "The pitching has been outstanding, but you have to have a little more intensity hitting."

Shrugging off a game-time temperature of 92 degrees, Zambrano and Chris Carpenter staged a classic pitching duel for nine innings before giving way to their bullpens. Zambrano tied a career high with 12 strikeouts, allowing only one run on three hits with no walks. Carpenter held the Cubs to one run on eight hits and has given up only three earned runs in his last seven starts, compiling a 0.45 earned-run average over 592/3 innings.

Zambrano served up a solo home run to rookie left-fielder John Rodriguez with one out in the first before dominating the rest of the way. He got some help from right fielder Jeromy Burnitz, whose leaping catch over the right-field wall in the sixth robbed Albert Pujols of a go-ahead home run.

Carpenter gave up a third-inning run on Derrek Lee's RBI groundout but came up with two big inning-ending double-play grounders from Todd Walker with the go-ahead run in scoring position in both the fifth and seventh innings.

"That has been killing us lately," Baker said.

The Cubs blew other opportunities, a theme lately, and left 11 men on base. Jason Isringhausen replaced Carpenter in the 10th and gave up a one-out triple to Jerry Hairston, but Walker failed in the clutch again, grounding out to short with a pulled-in infield. Lee was walked intentionally and took second on catcher's indifference before Burnitz walked to load the bases. Then Aramis Ramirez grounded out to end the threat.

Because of some strange scheduling, the Cubs and Cardinals have 14 games between them over the next two months, after splitting a pair in the first half.

"We have a lot of games against them," Lee said. "That can either be good or bad. They're playing such great baseball that you have to play good, or they're going to beat you. Our main focus is to win as many games as possible and get into the playoffs any way we can."

But with a 48-48 record, the Cubs will have to turn it up a couple of notches.

"It's tough to lose a game like that," Zambrano said. "On the other hand, you have Carpenter, the best pitcher in the National League. We scored one run off him and I didn't lose the game."

psullivan@tribune.com

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