MILWAUKEE -- If three consecutive losses to the Cardinals are not cause for panic -- and the Brewers insist they are not -- then they are at least cause for pause.
The National League Central race is not over yet.
St. Louis shaved three games off Milwaukee's division lead with a convincing sweep, sealing it with four home runs Thursday and an 8-4 Cardinals win at Miller Park that felt painfully familiar to the Brewers and their fans.
For the second straight day, Rafael Furcal led off the game with a Cardinals home run and Albert Pujols followed two batters later with another solo shot. For the second straight day, the Cardinals extended their lead with a grand slam -- this time off Pujols' bat in the fourth inning. He was 4-for-4 with three runs scored and five RBIs.
For the second straight day, a Brewers starter who was unbeaten at Miller Park since the All-Star break took the mound without his good stuff.
And for the second straight day, the Brewers missed a chance to extend their lead over the Cardinals. The Brewers entered the series having won 27 of their last 32 games, and 17 of their last 19 at home, to widen their lead in the NL Central to 10 1/2 games. They had lost consecutive home games only once all year, and had yet to lose three in a row here.
Now, after the Cardinals became the first team to sweep the Brewers at Miller Park in more than a year -- since the Dodgers took three in a row last Aug. 24-26 -- the lead has shrunk to 7 1/2 games.
"Seven and a half is still plenty good," said right fielder Corey Hart, who hit one of three Brewers home runs. "This is the first series in a while where we didn't play as well as we should have, and you're going to get beat by good teams when you don't play well. We know we have to go on the road and start playing a little better."
The Cardinals will have three final chances to gain ground head to head next week at Busch Stadium in the final 2011 series between the teams.
"There's no 'back in contention,'" Pujols said. "We just need to play. As many games as we've got left, we just need to continue to win. If we hit like this, play defense and pitch like we did here, I think we have a pretty good chance."
Both Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo are scheduled to pitch in next week's rematch, and will look for much better success than they enjoyed against the Cardinals this week. Wolf allowed six runs in five innings on Wednesday, including a grand slam to the opposing pitcher. Gallardo lasted only 4 2/3 innings on Thursday and surrendered eight earned runs on nine hits, including four home runs. He had never allowed more than two homers in 110 previous Major League starts.
Gallardo (15-9) had pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs in six of his last seven starts, and had been nearly unbeatable at Miller Park -- 9-1 with a 2.51 ERA in 13 home starts entering Thursday.
He was not the same pitcher on Thursday. It was the first time a Brewers starter didn't last five innings since Gallardo's six-run, 11-hit, four-inning outing at Colorado on July 14. That game was the team's first after the All-Star break, and the first time a starter didn't last five innings at Miller Park since Shaun Marcum left a June 22 game against the Rays after three innings. That was his first start after sustaining a hip injury in Boston.
Furcal hit Gallardo's fourth pitch for a homer to right field, and Pujols connected five pitches after that for his booming, 462-foot blast to left. That homer was the most impressive, but the next one did more damage. The Cardinals loaded the bases in the third inning with two infield hits and a walk before Pujols connected with a high fastball and sent it just over the right-field fence for a 6-0 lead.
"I just left the ball up," Gallardo said. "I fell behind hitters, and you can't do that to a good hitting team. The first hitter of the game, I fell behind 3-1 and had to come back with a strike. Pujols, the same thing.
"You give it all you've got, try everything to get the ball down. It just wasn't consistent. I was able to make a couple good pitches, and then fall out of rhythm and the ball was up again."
The Brewers halved the deficit in the bottom of the third inning with home runs by Jonathan Lucroy and Corey Hart, but Matt Holliday added a two-run homer off Gallardo in the fifth inning, the 200th of his career, that made it 8-3. In the eighth, Prince Fielder clubbed his 30th homer, becoming the first in franchise history to do so in five consecutive seasons.
All 12 runs on Thursday scored via seven homers.
The Brewers suddenly have a Pujols problem after containing the slugger for the early part of the season. In his first 11 games against Milwaukee, Pujols batted .116 with no home runs. He's 9-for-15 with four home runs in four games since.
The Brewers managed three runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings against right-hander Brandon Dickson, who made his first Major League start. They could not add on against a parade of Cardinals relievers, including Octavio Dotel, who allowed one hit in 2 2/3 scoreless innings for the win.
Hart's third-inning homer extended his hitting streak to 14 games, a stretch that includes five of his 23 home runs.
"We've built up good expectations by having such a good run," Hart said. "You have [bad] runs where you're not going to win every game. We feel confident as ever. ... There's not a whole lot of games left, so we feel pretty good about ourselves."
"Hey, if we continue to play good baseball, we're going to be fine," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "We have to go into Houston and play good baseball, and then we have a chance to go against the Cardinals again at their place."