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Cards' lead down to one-half game in NL Central

Sep 29, 2006 - 3:52 AM ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals are moving closer to linking themselves with the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

Jason Marquis failed to make it out of the third inning as the Cardinals continued their march toward a historic collapse with a 9-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in the opener of a four-game series.

Just eight days ago, the Cardinals looked to be well on their way to winning a third straight National League Central Division title. After all, they held a seven-game lead over Cincinnati and a 7 1/2-game advantage over Houston with 12 to play.

But the Cardinals (81-77) have lost eight of their last nine games, while the Astros (81-78) have won nine in a row to pull within one-half game with three to play. If St. Louis is one-half game ahead or behind after Sunday, it will host San Francisco on Monday in a rescheduled contest from an earlier postponement. The Reds are 2 1/2 games back in the Central.

"I think if anybody would have said that this would have happened over the last nine or 10 days we wouldn't have believed it," St. Louis outfielder Preston Wilson said. "But that's life, you have to deal with it, you come back tomorrow and try to do the best you can."

"It's turned into a sprint right now," said Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen, who hit a solo homer in the eighth. "If you look at a positive note, we're still in control of what we can do. We have four games, (Houston) has three, and if we win out we win the division."

In 1964, the Phillies held a 6 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL standings with 12 to play. However, the Phillies lost 10 of their final 12 games, allowing the Cardinals to overtake them.

These Cardinals look to be on their way to a collapse of their own.

Marquis (14-16) quickly gave away any momentum the Cardinals may have gained from Wednesday night's 4-2 win over San Diego, when superstar Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"There's a lot of truth that the momentum goes to the starting pitchers on each side," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "Early on we played like we pitched, which was not good."

In the first frame, Marquis surrendered a two-run homer to Bill Hall. The ineffective righthander gave up an RBI double to Mike Rivera and a run-scoring single to Tony Gwynn Jr. in the second, putting the Cardinals in an immediate 4-0 hole.

"Early in the game is beating (Marquis) up a lot," La Russa said. "His location is poor, I don't care how good your stuff is, you've got to locate in this league. That was a disappointing performance."

Marquis allowed a single and walk to start the third before being relieved by Josh Hancock. Milwaukee scored four times in the frame to build an 8-0 cushion.

Overall, Marquis surrendered six runs and five hits with three walks in two-plus innings as he took over the league lead in losses.

"It's not executing pitches, that's what it comes down to," said Marquis, who has allowed 78 runs at Busch Stadium, the most at home by any pitcher in baseball this season.

After it was announced earlier in the day that batting coach Butch Wynegar would not be back next season, the Brewers banged out 10 hits against six pitchers.

Hall had three hits and scored three times and Rivera, Gwynn and Corey Hart all had two RBI for Milwaukee, which won for the sixth time in eight games.

"We don't want to be the guys that lay down and let the Cardinals win four in a row and sneak into the playoffs," Hall said. "We want to end the season on a positive note and have some confidence coming into next year."

Doug Davis (11-11) took advantage of the offensive support and overcame eight walks to win for just the second time in his last eight starts. The lefthander went six innings, giving up one run and two hits with seven strikeouts.

"I made my pitches when I had to and the (defense) bailed me out a lot of times," Davis said. "When you dance around eight walks and get a win out of it, I'll take that any time."

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