Just when it appeared the Chicago Cubs lineup was ready to break out of a prolonged slump, its struggles resumed in the team's last game.
The bullpen has developed into a big problem as well.
After seven losses in eight games -- the latest coming after a blown lead in the ninth inning -- Chicago will try to get itself turned around on Monday when it opens a three-game road series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs (86-57) have scored more runs than any team in the NL and feature a pitching staff which has held opposing batters to a major league-low .242 average, both big reasons why Chicago's longest losing streak had been just four games as of two weeks ago.
But after losing their last two games in August, the Cubs dropped their first four in September, scoring 14 total runs during the six-game slide. They equaled that total on Saturday in Cincinnati, when Alfonso Soriano homered three times in a 14-9 win, but saw their struggles resume Sunday.
Despite being held to seven hits and failing to homer for the fifth time in seven games, Chicago led 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth, but Kerry Wood couldn't hold it and the Reds won 4-3.
The Cubs' bullpen, considered to be among the NL's best after entering this month with a 3.73 ERA and .242 opponent batting average, has a 10.50 ERA over the last five games while allowing 23 hits and 10 walks in 18 innings.
Wood has been scored upon in three of his last five appearances and has lost his last two, giving up five runs and five hits in 2 1-3 innings.
"We're not playing good baseball," Wood told the Cubs' official Web site. "When you're not playing as well as you want to play, you're going to lose close games like that."
Offensively, the Cubs aren't getting production from their biggest bats. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez is 4-for-29 (.138) without an RBI since Aug. 31. And aside from three RBIs Saturday, Derrek Lee hasn't driven in a run since Aug. 26.
"We still can't panic. We're still in good shape," Lee said. "You don't ever want to play under your talent level, and that's what we're doing right now."
The Cubs have 19 games left -- all against playoff contenders. Tuesday will be the first of six remaining games with St. Louis (77-66), which is chasing Milwaukee in the wild card race but also has Houston hot on its tail.
The Cardinals enter this series having won consecutive games for the first time since Aug. 20-22. Albert Pujols hit a two-run homer Saturday in a 5-3 win over Florida, then did the same in the first inning on Sunday, leading St. Louis to a 3-1 victory.
Pujols is hitting .400 (12-for-30) with four homers in his last eight games, and he's hitting .375 with three homers in nine matchups with the Cubs this season.
He hasn't fared particularly well against Ryan Dempster, however. Pujols is a .269 lifetime hitter (7-for-26) with one homer off Dempster (15-6, 2.99 ERA), who will start the series opener for the Cubs.
Dempster lost his latest start despite pitching well. He gave up three runs over seven innings in a 4-0 defeat to the Astros on Wednesday.
The right-hander won his lone start against the Cardinals this year, allowing two runs over 6 2-3 innings in a 6-2 victory on Aug. 10.
Kyle Lohse (13-6, 3.76), who hasn't won since Aug. 1, will get the ball for the Cardinals. He's 0-1 in his last four starts despite posting a 2.77 ERA. Lohse struck out seven over six shutout innings Wednesday in St. Louis' 4-3 loss at Arizona.
"(Kyle) has got a very misleading win total," manager Tony La Russa told the team's official Web site. "He's definitely pitched well enough to have several more. It's a team game, though."
Lohse is 0-1 with a 6.92 ERA in two starts against the Cubs this season.
Chicago leads the season series 5-4, and has won 10 of its last 15 at Busch Stadium.
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