ST. LOUIS -- Eight days ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were ready to cruise to their third straight NL Central championship. Now, only a half-game remains of what had been a seven-game cushion.
Jason Marquis got just six outs and St. Louis fell behind by eight runs in the third inning, losing 9-4 to the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday night. In a swoon that could become one of baseball's historic collapses, St. Louis (81-77) has lost eight of nine.
"It's turned into a sprint," Scott Rolen said. "It's hard to put a finger on it. If we could put a finger on it, I think we'd turn it around."
Manager Tony La Russa, who's been calm throughout the skid, said he feels no more pressure than he did on the first day of spring training.
"We had a really healthy lead and we've got it down to a half-game, and that's painful," La Russa said. "But it's still in our grasp."
Houston (81-78), which beat Pittsburgh 3-0 for its ninth straight win, closes with a three-game series at Atlanta while the Cardinals play the Brewers three more times. If it's needed to decide the division, the Cardinals will host San Francisco on Monday in the makeup of a Sept. 17 rainout.
Bill Hall was 3-for-4 with a two-run homer in the first off Marquis (14-16), who allowed six runs, five hits and two walks in two-plus innings. Marquis is 0-4 with an 8.46 ERA in five September starts and was booed by the sellout crowd of 40,313 as he left.
"I wish I came out with a better approach and got ahead of hitters and made better pitches, but I didn't," Marquis said. "It was one of those nights."
Marquis has a 6.02 ERA overall and might not get another start, even if the Cardinals reach the playoffs.
"This is not a good time to ask because that was a disappointing performance," La Russa said. "But I know he's disappointed, so I don't want to pile on him. There's a lot of piling on when somebody struggles or a team struggles."
Doug Davis (11-11) won for the first time in four starts despite walking eight -- one shy of his career high -- in six innings. He allowed one run and two hits, striking out seven.
"It's fun to kind of be in the mix and have a say in who's going to the playoffs," Davis said. "I just wish we were on the other end. When you dance around eight walks and get a win out of it -- I'll take that any day."
None of walks hurt him. La Russa thinks the early lead was a factor.
"I think there's a good chance our position players sagged a little bit when you look at that mountain you've got to climb," La Russa said.
Rolen and Preston Wilson homered for the Cardinals. Pujols was 0-for-4 in the opener of a four-game series with a popup, a double-play ball, a walk and a foulout.
Hall homered for the second time in three games and is 15-for-28 in his last eight games with three homers and nine RBI.
"A lot of people have a lot of interest in this series, especially the Houston Astros," Hall said. "It's fun to come in here and have something on the line."
Marquis has allowed 30 first-inning runs in 33 starts.
"I don't feel more vulnerable," he said. "Whether the numbers say that or not is a different story."
La Russa called Marquis' woes a "head-scratcher."
"Early in the game it's just beating him 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."
Mike Rivera hit an RBI double in the second and scored on Tony Gwynn Jr.'s single to make it 4-0. After the Brewers got their first two runners on in the third, Josh Hancock relieved and allowed consecutive RBI doubles to Corey Hart and David Bell, Rivera's sacrifice fly and Gwynn's run-scoring infield single.
Rolen had been in a 4-for-33 slump before hitting his 22nd homer off Chris Spurling in a three-run eighth. Wilson added a two-run double.
- St. Louis SS David Eckstein was a late lineup scratch after doing drills on the field before the game, missing his fifth straight start. He grounded out as a pinch hitter in the third. La Russa said he didn't think Eckstein would start Friday.
- Hall's homer was the first allowed by the Cardinals in 38 innings at home.
- Davis topped 200 innings for the third consecutive season and joined teammates Capuano and Dave Bush as the first Brewers trio to make it to 200 since 1993, when Cal Eldred, Jaime Navarro and Ricky Bones did it.
- Davis threw 114 pitches, half of them strikes. He walked nine on April 23 against the Reds.