Despite their slump, the Chicago Cubs still have a comfortable lead in the NL Central, but that could be soon changing as their division rivals heat up.
The Cubs try to avoid losing their third straight Wednesday when they continue a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, who are making their own push for a postseason spot.The Cubs (86-58) lost for the eighth time in nine games Tuesday, falling 4-3 to the Cardinals (78-66) in the opener of this series. Six of the last eight losses have come against teams in the NL Central."We're playing like we're waiting to get beat," manager Lou Piniella said. "You don't have a big enough lead in September to play ball like that."Despite the losing stretch, the Cubs remain 4 1/2 games ahead of second-place Milwaukee, which has lost three straight and seven of nine. Piniella is concerned, however. His team has scored just 20 runs in the last eight losses and has a tough schedule, visiting Houston, which has won 12 of 13, before returning home to face Milwaukee and St. Louis."Teams that play ball like that invariably get caught, no matter how big the lead," Piniella said. "You've got to stay aggressive, you've got to do the things you've done all year."We're not executing, we're making mistakes and we're getting beat. I'm getting quite tired of watching it, to be honest with you."The Cubs led 3-0 on Tuesday when Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer in the sixth to tie it before pinch-hitter Brendan Ryan beat the throw to the plate on Cesar Izturis' single with one out in the ninth. The Cardinals have won three straight and are 3 1/2 games behind Milwaukee in the NL wild-card race."Hopefully, we don't feel too comfortable," said Pujols, who has homered in the last three games. "Hopefully, we'll say it's another win against a great ballclub."We've still got five more games against these guys and we're going to see them in a couple of weeks in Wrigley."Pujols made news before the game when he told a local television station that he was considering having reconstructive elbow surgery which could sideline him into next season. The St. Louis slugger has been playing with a torn ligament since 2003.Pujols appeared to back off his earlier comments following Tuesday's win, saying that it's the best he has felt at the plate in "about a year-and-a-half."Pujols is hitting .361 with 33 homers and 98 RBIs this season. In the last 11 games he's 17-for-42 (.405) with four doubles, five homers and 11 RBIs. He is 8-for-23 with two home runs off Ted Lilly (13-9, 4.43 ERA), who takes the mound for the Cubs trying to get them back on track.Lilly has lost his last two starts. On Friday against the Reds, he lasted only two innings in his shortest outing of the season, allowing five runs and four hits while walking three in a 10-2 loss.Lilly is 4-2 with a 2.98 ERA in nine starts against the Cardinals, including 1-0 with a 3.10 ERA in two starts this season.Braden Looper (12-11, 4.09) counters for the Cardinals.Looper pitched 7 1-3 scoreless innings last Friday against Florida, allowing four hits while striking out six in St. Louis' 4-1, 11-inning loss.Looper is 3-4 with a 2.40 ERA in 38 appearances -- six starts -- against the Cubs. As a starter, he is 2-2 with a 1.98 ERA against them, including 0-1 with a 2.57 ERA in two starts this season.