Cards crumbling

The St. Louis Cardinals’ hopes of winning the NL Central continue to fade. The Chicago Cubs certainly aren’t making things any easier on them.

The stumbling Cardinals try to avoid being swept at Wrigley Field for the first time in five years Sunday night.

St. Louis (66-60) sat atop the division – one-half game ahead of Milwaukee – as recently as July 26, but now finds itself 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers. While the Cardinals fell 3-0 at Chicago on Saturday for their fourth loss in five games, Milwaukee beat the New York Mets for its 21st win in 24 games.

“We can’t worry about anyone else,” catcher Yadier Molina told the Cardinals’ official website before Saturday’s loss. “You have to worry about yourself. Try to win today, tomorrow and the next day.”

Getting wins over the Cubs (56-70) has suddenly become difficult for St. Louis, which has lost the last three meetings after winning seven of the first eight. The Cardinals are at risk of being swept in a series at Wrigley for the first time since July 27-30, 2006.

Chicago, winner of 14 of 19 overall, extended its scoreless innings streak to 15 against the Cardinals with Saturday’s shutout while Aramis Ramirez’s two-run homer provided most of the offense.

“I’m Dominican,” said Ramirez, who has hit .472 with four homers and 10 RBIs over an eight-game hitting streak. “We go out there and swing. We don’t walk much.”

Ramirez looks to stay hot Sunday against Jake Westbrook (9-7, 4.81 ERA), who has lost both of his starts versus the Cubs this year while allowing nine runs in 8 1-3 innings. Westbrook carried a perfect game into the sixth inning before falling apart in a 6-3 home loss to Chicago on July 31.

The 33-year-old sinkerballer dropped to 0-3 over his last four starts after yielding five runs and nine hits in 5 2-3 innings of Monday’s 6-2 loss at Pittsburgh.

While Alfonso Soriano is just 3 for 25 (.120) lifetime versus Westbrook, Carlos Pena has gone 11 for 35 (.314) with four homers and six doubles against the right-hander.

The Cubs counter with Rodrigo Lopez (4-3, 4.66), who looks to win a third consecutive start for the first time since May 25-June 4, 2006, while with Baltimore. After giving up one earned run in 5 2-3 innings of last Wednesday’s 4-2 win over Washington, the right-hander yielded three runs – two earned – and five hits in 5 1-3 innings of a 4-3 victory at Houston on Monday.

“He’s a 90-pitch kind of guy right now. He’s a veteran guy who mixes and matches,” manager Mike Quade told the Cubs’ official website. “Doesn’t give in. Knows what he wants to do. Obviously, he’s not the guy he was seven years ago.”

Lopez’s only defeat in his last seven starts came at St. Louis on July 30, when he surrendered a season worst-tying six runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings of a 13-5 loss.

Lopez has limited Albert Pujols to three hits in 15 career at-bats, but two of those have left the yard. Pujols is trying to avoid going hitless in a third straight game, which would tie a season high.

Rafael Furcal also has taken Lopez deep twice, going 10 for 26 (.385) against him.

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