There may be 13 games separating the Cubs from NL Central division-leading St. Louis, but the Cubs believe the gap is much closer than meets the eye.
Before an 11-3 loss Friday to the Cardinals, general manager Jim Hendry said he was happy with the way his team has competed since the All-Star break.
"We just had the bad stretch, the 18-40 stretch after Derrek [Lee] went down the first time," Hendry said. "That really killed us. We've played pretty well without Derrek this time. Our division, and pretty much the whole National League [is down], except for the Mets running away with [the East]. Unfortunately it was a year that if we had just a decent record right now, we'd be in it."
But the Cubs showed Friday why they're not, giving up six home runs and, in one forgettable inning, committing three errors.
"At this level that stuff is not supposed to happen," Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. "But we just have to deal with it."
The Cubs were 7-0 against St. Louis at Wrigley Field before Friday's funk. Six different Cardinals hitters hit home runs, including five in a mind-numbing 11-batter stretch against Roberto Novoa and David Aardsma.
The Cubs have been outhomered 94-54 at home this year.
Starter Carlos Marmol (5-6) left after three innings with a sore right biceps and likely will go on the disabled list.
He committed two errors and looked overmatched, as his 5.65 earned-run average suggests.
Still, Marmol is one of seven pitchers in contention for two, three or perhaps as many as four openings in the rotation next season, along with Wade Miller, Sean Marshall, Juan Mateo, Rich Hill, Ryan O'Malley and Angel Guzman.
"Hopefully we get a better look at these guys the next six weeks and that enables me to have a better thinking process into the off-season," Hendry said, "Because with what has happened to Kerry [Wood] and Mark [Prior], it's hard to predict right now where your pitching is going to be at on Oct. 1."
What the Cubs need to do to turn things around is debatable, but in a pregame interview Wednesday on WGN-AM, Cubs analyst and potential managerial candidate Bob Brenly said they have to learn to play the game "the right way" and be more "unselfish."
During Friday's third inning, that subtle indictment looked prescient.
"It was bunch of weird plays," manager Dusty Baker said. "Just one play after another."
It started after Chris Duncan's sacrifice fly to left gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead. Ramirez mishandled Angel Pagan's throw for an error, allowing David Eckstein to go to second. Albert Pujols followed with a single and Eckstein scored when Michael Barrett couldn't handle a 10-hopper from Pagan.
Pujols had overrun second on the play, but Marmol's throw to second bounced into center for an error, while Jacque Jones' poor throw back allowed Pujols to go to third. After hitting Scott Rolen prompting a warning to both benches, Marmol made an error on a pickoff to first, and another run scored.
The Cubs pulled to within 4-3 on Ramirez's two-run shot off Jason Marquis (13-11) in the fourth, but the Cardinals played long ball with Novoa and Aardsma in the sixth and seventh to put it away.
"The balls were right down the heart of the plate," Baker said. "You could put 'em on a tee almost."
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