Jason Marquis was drilled in two-plus innings and his teammates couldn't solve Doug Davis as the Cardinals lost for the eighth time in nine games, 9-4, to the Brewers on Thursday night.
That leaves St. Louis' lead over Houston in the National League Central at a half-game, with the Cards' magic number remaining at four. Both teams have won 81 games.
The Reds remain in the hunt in third at 2 1/2 games back. In nine days, the Cardinals have lost 6 1/2 games from their once-hefty division cushion. In that same frame, Houston has roared from 8 1/2 games out in third place.
The Cards can no longer wrap up the Central division before Monday without help from Houston. In order to avoid making up a previously rained-out game with the Giants on Monday, the Cardinals need a combination of four wins and Astros losses over the next three days.
"It definitely puts us in a tougher spot, but they're looking up at us still, whether it's by a half a game or not," said Preston Wilson. "It's still half a game. They're looking up at us, so they have to do more than we have to at this point."
But the Cardinals have to do more than they've been doing -- both offensively and on the pitcher's mound.
Marquis, who could have been making his last start in a Cardinals uniform, was in trouble from the start, with nothing but hard contact and walks in the first inning.
Tony Gwynn Jr. opened the game with a sharp liner to left field, and Tony Graffanino walked. Aaron Miles speared Prince Fielder's hard line drive for an out but committed a throwing error committed an error by throwing behind Graffanino to allow him to go to second. Bill Hall followed with a home run, and it was 2-0. Another walk and another loud out to left ended the inning.
It was more of the same in the second, with a single and a double before Davis struck out on a bunt attempt. Gwynn contributed an RBI single to make it 4-0 and Graffanino flied out before Marquis prevented solid contact against a non-pitcher for the first time -- Fielder struck out.
When the first two batters of the third inning reached base, the right-hander was lifted. He took his 16th loss of the season and saw his ERA climb to 6.02.
"It's a head-scratcher, man," manager Tony La Russa said. "He feels like early in the game he's more vulnerable. Then as he cranks it up, he starts getting a little oiled up, he gets better. But early in the game is eating him up a lot. His location is poor. I don't care how good your stuff is, you've got to locate in this league."
Marquis said: "I wish I came out with a better approach and got ahead of hitters and made better pitches, but I didn't. It's one of those nights."
It's unclear when -- or even whether -- Marquis will take the mound again for St. Louis. If the Cards and Astros or Reds need a playoff to decide the division title, his turn would come on Tuesday. But there's no guarantee he would get that game, or any starts in the postseason. As a free agent this winter, his next start may well come for another club.
"It's out of my hands," he said of another start this season. "I've been a starter the last three years here and that's what I feel most comfortable doing. That's what I enjoy doing. I think that's where I'm at my best. Obviously if we make the postseason, that's where I feel I'm at my best and I can help the team. But it's out of my hands."
La Russa would not commit to another start for the right-hander.
"It's not a good time to ask," he said. "Because that was a disappointing performance."
Still, the disappointing showing was mirrored by Marquis' teammates on the offensive side. Davis was hardly sharp, but the Redbirds could do little to make him pay.
The left-hander walked eight batters over his six innings, yet none of those free baserunners came around to score. St. Louis fell to 22-34 in games against left-handed starters this season.
"That's kind of the way he pitches," said Scott Rolen, who took a called third strike to end a possible rally in the first. "He's up in the zone. He throws a cutter -- a good cutter in. He gets swinging strikeouts. That's been effective for him. He made big pitches tonight when he needed to. He walked a lot of guys tonight but we couldn't get anything done."
Rolen spurred an eighth-inning comeback against the Milwaukee bullpen with a solo home run. Two singles, a walk and a double added two more runs, but the Cards could get no closer than 9-4.
The Cardinals take another shot at Milwaukee on Friday. Houston starts a three-game series against the Braves in Atlanta; the Reds go to Pittsburgh.
"Maybe I'm just overly optimistic, but I feel like as long as they're looking up at us, we're in control," Wilson said. "It's a matter of, do you want to do your job or do you want to try to sit back and let somebody else do it for you? And I think to a man, everybody in this clubhouse, we want to do the job."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.