HOUSTON—Jason Marquis correctly pointed out "it's not the end of the world" after the Cubs stranded 15 baserunners in a 5-4, 11-inning loss to the Astros on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.
And while that may be true, the general mood in the Cubs clubhouse, and in Lou Piniella's office, suggested otherwise.
Ryan Dempster issued a one-out walk and Luke Scott tripled home the winning run for the Astros in another heartbreaker for the Cubs, who fell one game behind the Brewers in the National League Central race.
"We still have a few games left," Marquis said. "We have to keep battling."
The Brewers beat the Pirates 6-1, while the Cardinals dropped a 7-2 decision to the Reds, suffering their fifth straight loss to fall four games out of first.
Marquis coughed up an early three-run lead and the Cubs offense couldn't come through in the clutch, going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, including golden scoring opportunities in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings.
"It reminds me of the first three games we played here," Piniella said, referring to Houston's three-game sweep in August when the Cubs scored just five total runs. "I don't know how many opportunities we had to score runs today. How many did we leave on base? Fifteen? Hard to win that way."
With 18 games remaining for both the Cubs and Brewers, the race is likely to be decided by which team blinks first. The two teams haven't been separated by more than 1½ games since Aug. 30, or more than 2½ games since July 27.
But Tuesday night's loss may have been the Cubs' most psychologically damaging to date. They dropped to 2-8 in extra-inning games and were shut out over the final eight innings after taking a 4-1 lead.
Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry combined for four innings of one-hit relief, striking out four batters apiece from the sixth through the ninth. Dempster entered in the 10th and threw a perfect inning before walking Mark Loretta with one out in the 11th.
After falling behind Scott 2-0, Dempster grooved one to the Astros right fielder, who ripped a triple to the wall in right-center, bringing home pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett from first.
A distraught Dempster dressed in a hurry and said 11 words while rushing out the door: "I made a stupid pitch. Walked a guy. Lost the game."
Dempster fell to 2-6 with his second tough loss in six days, although Derrek Lee absolved him of any blame.
"Dempster, in his situation, is always the last guy out there," Lee said. "But we had opportunities before that to win the game and didn't get it done. It's easy to pin it on Dempster, but the game should've been over before that."
Mark DeRosa's three-run homer off Brandon Backe in the third gave Marquis a three-run lead, but he gave up two in the fifth and the tying run on Loretta's RBI double in the sixth, prompting his removal.
"Marquis was very so-so today," Piniella said. "I didn't think he had very good stuff, to be honest."
While Marmol and Howry dominated, the Astros turned in some defensive gems. Scott robbed Derrek Lee of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch in the seventh and Carlos Lee robbed Ryan Theriot of a two-run double with a diving catch in the eighth.
"What are you going to do?" Theriot said. "He made a great play and it ended up saving them a couple of runs."
DeRosa grounded into a double play to end the ninth with two on, Brad Lidge struck out Alfonso Soriano to end the 10th with a runner on second and Jacque Jones lined to center on a 2-0 pitch to end the 11th after Lidge had walked the bases full.
Was Piniella upset with the approaches of Cubs hitters?
"I don't know about the approaches," he said. "I'm talking about the results. The hell with the approaches. It's too late to worry about approaches. Worry about results."