CHICAGO Two steps forward and one step back. It's been that kind of season for the puzzling St. Louis Cardinals.
Armed with one of the best offensives in the league and a pitching staff that has the lowest ERA in the major leagues in July, the Cardinals somehow find themselves a season-worst 7.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central.
And Sunday's 4-2 walk-off loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field served as a perfect microcosm of their recent struggles: Adam Wainwright allowed just two runs in six innings but the offense couldn't provide a clutch hit and the bullpen faltered late.
The Cardinals arrived in the Windy City with six wins in their past seven games and momentum that appeared to have them going in the right direction. But after winning Friday's series opener 9-6, the Cardinals lost 3-2 on Saturday and fell in another heartbreaker Sunday to drop the series and slow their gaining optimism.
"You can't be playing well, come in here and lose to the Cubs," said outfielder Matt Holliday. "We can't lose this series. But we did. The only way to get better is to play better, and we didn't get the result we were looking for."
The Cardinals went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the two losses, wasting solid starts from both Joe Kelly and Wainwright in the process. They loaded the bases in the seventh trailing 2-1 but Allen Craig popped up to right to end the threat.
After Carlos Beltran awoke from a July slump with a solo home run to left to tie the game in the eighth, the Cardinals put two runners on base before pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker grounded out to first.
"We had an opportunity to win this one but unfortunately they were able to pull it off," Beltran said. "What can I say? I think we just need to find a way to put it together."
Asked if he was looking at the standings and the Cardinals fading chances in the division race, Beltran said, "Honestly I'm not looking. I think we need to focus on playing ourselves. We have no control of what Cincinnati is going to do, or Pittsburgh. We have to find a way to focus and play and win ballgames.
"They are playing good baseball, but who knows. We have plenty of games left. Anything can happen."
Wainwright allowed three hits and a run to the first four batters of the game and another run on a fluky play in the second. With runners at first and second and no outs, the Cardinals tried to turn a double play on a bunt attempt to Matt Carpenter at first.
But Dan Descalso was charged with an error after his throw back to first was wide of the bag and a moving Tyler Greene couldn't handle it. The ball rolled away and the runner scored to give the Cubs a 2-0 lead.
Pressed into his first big situation, rookie Trevor Rosenthal served up a two-run game-ending home run to Cubs rookie Anthony Rizzo in the bottom of the tenth. Rosenthal hadn't allowed a run in three previous appearances since being called up from Double-A.
Despite having the best run-differential in the National League, the Cardinals have struggled in close games. Sunday's loss dropped them to 6-19 in road games decided by one or two runs Sunday and are 16-29 in those situations overall.
"We've left something on the table in every period we've played so far," Wainwright said. "But you're talking about a team that knows how to win and knows how to get things done. Thing will click soon, I really feel like that. The guys in this clubhouse are really taking it seriously and really working hard to make adjustments.
"It could be one home run, one double, it could be one shutout thrown by a pitcher. You never know what could start the engine running but we're something like that away from being a really, really, really tough team the rest of the way. We won six out of seven and lost a game in the standings. The other teams are playing really good ball. We can't control what they are doing. All we can control is what were doing."
The Reds won their 10th consecutive game Sunday and are suddenly tied for the best record in baseball. The Pirates lost Sunday but remain atop the Wild Card standings.
Despite facing a stiff uphill climb to catch the Reds, the Cardinals aren't ready to concede just yet. After making up a 10.5 game deficit in the final six weeks of the season to catch the Braves last year, they know that anything can happen.
And they still have the Wild Card to fall back on. The Cardinals are just 2.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot.
"These guys I'm sure rest on last year as their example and to me, just keep playing the game," said manager Mike Matheny. "We have all of August and all of September and if we didn't have the horses and ability to do something I'd like to think we'd still be positive but there's no question we do.
"We have a team that can run off a streak as good as anybody in baseball, so we'll just keep playing the game."
The Cardinals are off Monday before starting a three-game series Tuesday night in Colorado.