When Mike Fontenot's fly ball settled into the glove of Cincinnati right fielder Norris Hopper at the warning track in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, the Cubs' chances of gaining on first-place Milwaukee died in the vines.
Instead of a game-winning, two-run homer, Fontenot's long poke turned into a game-ending out, dealing the Cubs a 6-5 loss before a raucous crowd of 40,750 at Wrigley Field.
Almost everyone in the ballpark, including Cubs manager Lou Piniella, thought Fontenot's ball was gone.
"Where's that Wrigley Field wind?" Piniella cried afterward. "Where's it at? I thought it was out of the ballpark. I really did."
The wind had died down by the ninth, and the moist, heavy air kept the ball inside the park.
The Cubs are 3-9 in their last 12 games, but still are only 1½ games behind first-place Milwaukee, which lost to St. Louis at Miller Park.
Another day, another wasted opportunity.
"If we'd just go .500, we'd probably have a two- or three-game lead," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "But that's not the case.
"But we're still in it, and you've got to feel fortunate for that."
The third-place Cardinals are now 4½ games back, and come to town for a four-game series Friday.
"We'd rather have put them away right now, but they're in it," Lee said. "We play them a few more times this year, so it's kind of in our hands a little bit."
The Cubs wasted solo home runs by Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Jacque Jones, and a late-inning rally that saw them creep back from an early four-run deficit.
The main culprit was Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, who threw his batting helmet after grounding out in the third inning and threw a lot of belt-high pitches that were hit into the gaps.
Zambrano (14-9) is winless in his last three starts, and couldn't have picked a worse time to go into a tailspin. He allowed six runs on a season-high 13 hits with no strikeouts over seven innings, and has given up 13 runs on 21 hits over his last two starts.
"I felt good [Tuesday night]," Zambrano said. "I made good pitches, and they came ready to play, to hit the ball.
"There was nothing I could do. Just think of my next game and do a better job."
Piniella didn't have much to say about Zambrano's performance, other than "he didn't have his real good stuff" again.
"Run him out there again on Sunday," Piniella said. "I don't have any explanation for it."
Cincinnati starter Aaron Harang (12-3) served up the three solo homers but allowed only one other hit over seven-plus innings.
"It's frustrating a little bit because we played a real good game," said Ramirez, who returned to the lineup from a wrist injury. "We just came up short in the ninth.
"I thought Fontenot's ball was out of the ballpark, but I guess he didn't hit it too good, or the air was heavy and there was no wind."
Trailing 6-3, the Cubs got an RBI single by Matt Murton in the seventh and run-scoring single by Lee off reliever Jared Burton in the eighth.
But David Weathers induced Daryle Ward to pop out with two on and two out in the eighth, then got through the ninth despite a warning-track fly to left by Murton, a two-out walk to Jason Kendall and Fontenot's game-ending near-miss at the vines in right.
The Cubs are 4-9 in August and two games over .500 overall. Piniella isn't worried about the swoon, and says the Cubs simply have to persevere until Alfonso Soriano returns in early September from a leg injury.
"What we've got to do is hang in there a little longer," Piniella said. "We're going to have a another hot spell. We're going to get hot here one more time, and hopefully it's sooner than later.
"We're in this race to stay. We're not going to fall out of this thing."