ST. LOUIS -- Chris Carpenter's timing was off, in more ways than one, on Saturday.
In the micro sense, Carpenter's delivery was a little too fast, leading to four extra-base hits and three runs against him in the first two innings. In the bigger picture, he happened to pitch like a mere mortal on the first day in two weeks that pitching like a mere mortal wasn't good enough to get the Cardinals a win. As a result, Carpenter was the unfortunate recipient of a 3-2 Cards loss to the Cubs at Busch Stadium.
Thanks to an effective afternoon from prodigal Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, Carpenter needed to be his usual exceptional self to pick up the victory. Instead, he was only pretty good, and it wasn't good enough.
"It was definitely a battle the whole game," Carpenter said, "but I was able to do some things right and give us a chance to stay in it and a chance to come back and win it.
"I think I was going a little too quick today and keeping my fastball up. I'm just, again, pulling off. Mechanically I wasn't as solid as I've been, so I'll work on it and get ready to go again."
Pitching four days after suffering some bruises and abrasions in the Cardinals' scuffle with the Reds, Carpenter never seemed to find his sharpest command. He and manager Tony La Russa both dismissed and connection between his scrapes and his performance, though. Carpenter did acknowledge that at one point the oppressive heat got to him, but he was able to cool off in the clubhouse and resume pitching.
Carpenter consistently missed high with most of his pitches, including his bread-and-butter sinker and curveball. Often when Carpenter did get the ball down, it was out of the strike zone.
"I think the guys took advantage of Carp today," said Chicago catcher Koyie Hill. "He came out and I don't think he was as sharp as he would have liked to have been or as sharp as we have seen him in the past. We put some big runs on the board early and it helped us out, kind of set the tone for the game."
Despite being at less than his best, Carpenter managed to survive six innings to record a quality start, facing the minimum nine batters over his final three frames. He struck out three and didn't issue a walk, instead taking all of his damage on extra-base hits.
After St. Louis took an early lead, Aramis Ramirez tied it right up when he led off the second with a home run. Doubles by Marlon Byrd and Koyie Hill put Chicago ahead, and the Cubs never relinquished the lead. Derrek Lee followed with a solo homer to right field in the third, but that was all that Carpenter would allow. He retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced before giving way to a pinch-hitter in the sixth.
Unfortunately for the Cards, three runs were enough to beat them for the first time since July 31. St. Louis' streak of games with at least four runs came to an end at 11. Put another way, it was the first time since the Cards traded Ryan Ludwick in the deal that netted them Jake Westbrook that they were held to fewer than four runs.
Matt Holliday's sacrifice fly got them on the board in the first, and Randy Winn chipped in with a run-scoring pinch-single in the sixth, but overall they had too few opportunities and did too little with them. A leadoff single went for naught in the third, and three straight baserunners couldn't produce a two-out run in the fifth.
"I don't know if that's the best game [Zambrano has] ever thrown," said Brendan Ryan, who went 1-for-4 with a bloop single. "I wouldn't say that. We did scratch one out in the first and they came back and answered. He's got good stuff, but we still hit some balls hard. Aramis [Ramirez, third baseman] made some nice plays over there. It's just a tough one. He did his thing."
Ryan was one of two Cardinals who failed to get a bunt down in the late innings, execution lapses that may well have cost the club. After Holliday's leadoff single in the eighth, interim manager Joe Pettini called for Colby Rasmus to bunt. Rasmus popped up, and the next two batters went quietly against closer Carlos Marmol.
An inning later, Aaron Miles led off with an infield hit, taking second on a throwing error, and this time it was Ryan who couldn't get the man over. He popped up twice, with Hill dropping his first one. Felipe Lopez popped up and Allen Craig struck out to end the game.
"We got the tying run to second base with nobody out in the ninth, that's a big miss," said La Russa, who served the second game of a two-game suspension while watching from a booth in the broadcast press box. La Russa returns to active duty on Sunday as the Cards try to win the series.
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.