A nine-game stretch against the National League's three last-place teams -- Miami, Cincinnati and San Diego -- seemed like a chance for the St. Louis Cardinals to fatten their record and make a surge up the National League Central ladder.
Instead, St. Louis wasn't even able to tread water. It went 4-5 in that span, including consecutive 4-2 losses Tuesday and Wednesday night to a San Diego Padres team that currently looks like a cellar-dweller in name only, having won five straight series.
Now the Cardinals (36-30) will have to get their work done against better teams. Beginning with the opener of a three-game series Friday night in Busch Stadium against the Chicago Cubs (38-27), they play 19 straight games against teams that currently have winning records.
What's more, they'll play this weekend without their most consistent hitter, first baseman Jose Martinez, who leads the team in all three Triple Crown categories (.321 average, 10 HR, 42 RBIs). He'll miss the series on paternity leave in Venezuela.
"It's a big series for us, but that's a monumental life event," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
Luke Voit will be recalled from Double-A Springfield to replace Martinez on the roster. The big right-handed hitter could get a couple of starts this weekend as Chicago will trot out left-handed starters Jon Lester and Jose Quintana.
Lester (7-2, 2.22 ERA) gets the call in the series opener, which, if this year's form is any indication, may become a pitcher's duel. He'll be opposed by right-hander Michael Wacha (8-1, 2.47), who will seek his ninth straight win.
Lester is coming off a 2-0 win Saturday at Wrigley Field against Pittsburgh, allowing only one hit in seven innings with two walks and five strikeouts. In his last eight starts, Lester is 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA, and he hasn't permitted a run in his two starts this month.
He's 1-0 in two starts this year against the Cardinals, permitting only two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings. In his career against St. Louis, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 16 starts, limiting hitters to a .220/.282/.344 slash line.
Wacha hasn't lost since March 31 against the New York Mets and is building a case for his second All-Star appearance. In his last start on Saturday, Wacha beat Cincinnati 6-4, permitting four hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings with three walks and six whiffs.
He has faced the Cubs once this year, working 5 1/3 innings and yielding two runs (one earned) on May 6 in a no-decision as the Cardinals won 4-3 in 14 innings. But Wacha has been rocked most of his career against Chicago, as he's 4-7 with a 6.12 ERA in 17 outings, including 15 starts.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has had his way with Wacha, going 18-of-40 in his career with three homers. Chicago teammates Ian Happ, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras also have two homers each against Wacha.
The Cubs lost two of three in Milwaukee this week, suffering 4-0 and 1-0 losses in the series' final two games and falling 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central.
"We almost should be grateful we won one of three," Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. "We played well the first game, then shutout, shutout."