It was supposed to be seven games where the defending World Series champions flashed that playoff form and gave their home fans something to get excited about.
The Cards' seven-game homestand with the Cubs and Brewers could still possibly turn out that way, but the chances of that happening took a serious blow Wednesday night, when the Cubs took the second game of a three-game series, 7-1, at Busch Stadium.
"We've been in this position it seems like most of the season," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "These two games are already in the 'L' column. We'll come out [Thursday] and try and salvage a game. It's not any more complicated than that."
The Cards have now lost seven straight to the two teams they are chasing in the NL Central, the Cubs and Brewers, and are 3-9 on the season against those two teams.
If that wasn't ugly enough, Wednesday's loss marked the 25th time this season that the Cards have lost by five or more runs.
It looked for a while on Wednesday night like Cards starter Adam Wainwright was going to go toe-to-toe with Cubs starter Ted Lilly, and the 45,316 fans at Busch Stadium were going to be treated to an old-fashion pitching duel.
For three innings, Wainwright was absolutely dominant. He looked every bit like the pitcher who had compiled a 3-0 record with a 1.29 ERA over his previous three starts. He gave up just one hit, and struck out six of the first 10 hitters he faced. The other outs were all soft grounders or shallow fly balls.
In the fourth and fifth, it all changed for the right-hander, thanks to some two-out clutch hits by the Cubs bats.
In the fourth, Cliff Floyd came to the plate with a runner on first and two outs. Floyd singled to put two men on. Mark Fontenot and Jacques Jones followed with RBI singles to give the Cubs their first two runs.
After the Cards responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the frame on an RBI single by Juan Encarnacion, the Cubs went back to work on Wainwright in the fifth. Alfonso Soriano started the rally with a one-out triple. He was brought home on a single by Ryan Theriot. After getting Derrek Lee to hit into a fielder's choice for the second out, Aramis Ramirez doubled to put runners on second and third. Floyd struck again, coming through with a two-run double. Fontenot followed with an RBI single to cap the scoring in the fifth.
In all, five of the Cubs' first six runs came with two-outs. In the first two games of the series, the Cubs have nine of their 11 runs with two outs, and they are 10-for-23 with runners in scoring position.
"[The two-out hits] killed us," La Russa said. "Two days in a row, we haven't been able to get that zero. It's twice as painful."
For Wainwright, it marks his first rough outing in July, and first loss since June 30 against the Reds. He went five innings and gave up five runs on nine hits. He walked one and struck out seven. He's now 9-8 on the season.
"My team needed me to give them a big start, and I didn't give it to them," Wainwright said. "I'm very disappointed that I didn't pitch better for our team. At the same time, I'm not going to hang my head about it. I'll be ready to pitch next time."
Even though Wainwright struggled, he didn't get much help from his offense.
While the Cubs were collecting clutch hit after clutch hit in the first two games, it was a different story for the Cards hitters. The Redbirds hit into four double plays and only advanced one runner past second base. Encarnacion was the only highlight, going 4-for-4 with an RBI.
They also saw their All-Star slugger, Albert Pujols, have another quiet night. Through the first two games of the series, Pujols is 0-for-9. He did a hit a rocket to center field that Jones caught at the warning track in the first inning, but couldn't get anything else going.
On Tuesday, Pujols made the last out of the game when he grounded out with a runner on first. Earlier in that game, Pujols couldn't get a runner home from third with one out. La Russa said the Cubs have done a good job of pitching Pujols tough.
Now, Pujols and the rest of the Cards will try to get back on track with five pivotal games left on their homestand. The Cubs will try to sweep their first series in St. Louis since 1988.
"We know we're not pitching the way we should. There's guys that aren't hitting the way they should," Wainwright said. "Our team is just not playing good Cardinal baseball like we could and should. I think a lot of clubs would have already thrown in the towel, and we've continued to grind. We're not playing our best, but we're not out of it by any means."
Daniel Berk is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.