Carlos Zambrano's worst outing since he punched his catcher was only the tip of the iceberg of another dreadful day for the Cubs.
After an 8-2 loss to Houston on Wednesday night, the Cubs announced Aramis Ramirez had flown to Chicago to see a hand specialist after aggravating a sore right wrist and being scratched from the lineup.
The Cubs may be losing ballgames and losing stars, but they're not losing any ground in the Central Division race. Milwaukee also lost, a 19-4 debacle at Colorado, so the Cubs remained one game behind the first-place Brewers.
"You know what has been amazing about chasing Milwaukee is when they were hot, we were hot, and when they're cold, we're cold," manager Lou Piniella said. "It has been rather odd. I mean, they've given us enough chances. Sooner or later, we better take advantage."
The Central Division race has turned into a battle of attrition, with neither the Cubs nor the Brewers looking anything like a made-for-October team. The slumping Cubs have lost four straight, six of seven and 11 of their last 18 games; the free-falling Brewers have lost four straight and 14 of their last 20.
General manager Jim Hendry is trying to fix an offense that has been handcuffed by the losses of Alfonso Soriano and Ramirez. The Cubs left 13 men on base Wednesday and went 2-for-34 with runners in scoring position while getting swept.
"That's not easy to do," Piniella said.
Oakland's Shannon Stewart is among the outfielders on Hendry's wish list, though a few other contenders will have to pass on Stewart for the Cubs to get him on waivers.
Ramirez is expected to rejoin the team in Denver on Friday, but whether he will be available to play is unknown.
Outpitched by Astros ace Roy Oswalt, Zambrano (14-8) allowed seven runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. It was the most runs he had allowed since giving up seven to Atlanta on June 1, when he punched Michael Barrett and subsequently declared a "do-over" to his season five days later.
The frustration was etched on Zambrano's face all night long. It came to a head when he was called out on strikes on a fastball with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth. Zambrano broke his bat over his knee and smacked his helmet with the splintered wood as he stalked into the dugout.
"If he throws me a fastball, that's the pitch you're supposed to hit," Zambrano said. "That's why I was upset."
Zambrano had not allowed an earned run in his two victories over Houston this year, but his velocity was between 89-92 m.p.h. most of the night. In the third inning, Zambrano served up a solo homer to Craig Biggio on an 89-m.p.h. fastball and a two-run triple to Luke Scott on a 92-m.p.h. fastball.
Lance Berkman cranked a 438-foot homer in the fifth before Zambrano was removed after Mike Lamb's two-run double on an 0-2 pitch in the sixth.
Piniella said Zambrano was "fighting himself," an assessment Zambrano agreed with.
"I know when you control yourself, you can do a better job than when you're too aggressive," Zambrano said.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have turned into a broken record, wasting another first-inning opportunity and continually falling short in the clutch. They entered Wednesday's game hitting .246 in August with two home runs, and now have scored 16 runs over their last six games.
"I'm putting the wrong lineups out there," Piniella said.