ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' last stand did not get off to a good start. A team that needs everything to start clicking at once received a strong start but virtually no offense in a 4-1 defeat to the Brewers at Busch Stadium on Monday afternoon.
As a result, the Cards' already faint division hopes took a significant hit. St. Louis now trails first-place Milwaukee by 10 1/2 games in the National League Central with 21 games to play. That's the same deficit the Cardinals faced when they went into Milwaukee a week ago, before sweeping three games from the Brewers.
At that point, though, the rivals had six head-to-head matchups remaining. Now they have two: on Tuesday and Wednesday at Busch Stadium. Then they're done facing each other for the season. The Brewers' magic number for clinching the division dropped to 11 with the win.
"That's baseball," said Albert Pujols. "You can't figure it out. You think we're not trying? We're trying to do the best we can to hopefully not hand the Central division to these guys. Just fight to the end the same way we did in April and the last 140 games. It is what it is. They're playing well. You have to give a lot of credit to those guys over there."
The Cards' best chance for making the postseason now likely rests in the NL Wild Card race. The Wild Card-leading Braves start a series with the league-leading Phillies on Monday night, and Atlanta has a tougher schedule over the season's final three weeks than the Brewers do.
On Monday, the Cards' offense went quiet for a second straight day. Randy Wolf allowed four hits over eight innings, and scarcely broke a sweat in so doing. He needed a relatively tidy 112 pitches to get 24 outs, issuing two walks while striking out five.
Players from both sides noted that the late-afternoon shadows made for a difficult hitting environment, but Wolf was sharp as well. A week earlier, the Cardinals knocked him around. On Monday, they had no such success.
"He was good, man," Pujols said. "I don't want you guys [the media] to get it wrong. I don't want to disrespect the job that he did. He did a pretty good job, kept the ball down and it wasn't fair for us to see. And it wasn't fair for them to see, either."
The Redbirds also helped Wolf out in a couple of different ways. They hit into two double plays and lost another out when Yadier Molina was thrown out trying to advance on a ball that got away from Brewers catcher George Kottaras.
Mostly, though, they just didn't generate many chances. By contrast with Sunday's game against the Reds, when the Cardinals had a slew of opportunities and didn't convert, on Monday they rarely even threatened Wolf.
"It was a tough one to swallow last time, but the good thing about a season like this is you're allowed next time," Wolf said. "You don't want to get too down about one start."
The quiet offensive day sent starter Jake Westbrook to an undeserved loss. Westbrook was sharp if inefficient over six innings, keeping the ball mostly on the ground and tying a career high with nine strikeouts. Westbrook threw nearly as many pitches in six frames (107) as Wolf did in eight.
Milwaukee's first run scored thanks to a ground-ball double, a comebacker that deflected off of Westbrook and an infield hit. Westbrook permitted a solo homer to Ryan Braun that made it 2-0, but the third run against him was unearned. Two singles and an error allowed the Brewers to stretch their lead.
With the Cards' offense searching for any traction whatsoever, that was more than enough to send the home team to a loss. St. Louis has lost three out of four on its current homestand after winning six of its previous seven.
"Our whole mindset even before we went to Milwaukee was we've got to win ballgames," Westbrook said. "Losing this one, we've still got to come out tomorrow and try to win the next game. Hopefully do everything we can to put some pressure on everybody that's in front of us."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.