Mark Prior's brilliant pitching effort Thursday suggested the Cubs' future remains bright in the long run.
But after the Cubs wasted Prior's three-hit, 16-strikeout performance in a 2-1, 12-inning loss to Cincinnati, the short-term prognosis was grim.
National League wild-card lead with only three remaining.
Suffering their fifth loss in six games against the lowly New York Mets and Reds, the Cubs fell one game behind idle Houston and a half-game behind San Francisco.
The Cubs stranded 12 runners, the final two in the 12th when Moises Alou flied to center for the final out. The Reds had gone ahead 2-1 in the top of the 12th on Javier Valentin's two-out, RBI double off Kyle Farnsworth.
"One of the things that hurt so much is that we couldn't get the win for Prior, because he pitched an unbelievable game," Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra said.
Prior, damaged only by Austin Kearns' seventh-inning homer, matched his career high in strikeouts while walking only one. But he was disconsolate afterward, knowing the Cubs have their backs to the wall.
"We lost," Prior said grimly. "I think we all know where we're at right now."
The Cubs fell to 19-29 in one-run games. They have suffered back-to-back one-run, 12-inning losses to the Reds, who came to town with one of the National League's most battered pitching staffs.
"It's tough to lose two 12-inning games in a row," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "Especially when we had opportunities to win. We had the bases loaded three times, but Mark was up there twice."
The Cubs went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and continued to fail in clutch situations. They have scored three or fewer runs in eight of their last 11 games, hitting .205 in that span.
"People will say, 'Oh, they're pressing,'" Garciaparra said. "It's not pressing. We're trying. There's a difference between pressing and trying. Guys are trying. They're doing their best. We want to win. You can look at every single face in here. No one has given up, that's for sure."
After Sammy Sosa's homer onto Waveland Avenue off Aaron Harang broke a scoreless tie with one out in the sixth, Kearns smacked Prior's 2-1 pitch off the left-field foul pole with two outs in the seventh, ultimately forcing extra innings.
The Cubs' best chance came in the 11th, when they loaded the bases with two outs, only to have Reds reliever Juan Padilla, who brought a 12.71 earned-run average into the game, strike out Michael Barrett on three pitches to end the inning.
Adam Dunn then singled off Mike Remlinger (1-2) to lead off the 12th. After Farnsworth struck out Kearns, the slow-footed Dunn surprised everyone with a steal of second, his sixth steal in only seven attempts.
"They're taking off running, and if they get thrown out, so what, nobody's going to question that," second baseman Todd Walker said. "If we take off running and we get thrown out, there's going to be a lot of questions. We're not playing tight, we're playing pretty loose. But over there, it's a [looser] mentality."
Dunn advanced on a groundout and scored when Valentin lined a 2-1 pitch into the right-field corner.
Jose Macias led off the Cubs' 12th with a single off Padilla, but Corey Patterson (0-for-6) fanned on a slider after failing on two bunt attempts. Garciaparra showed bunt on Padilla's first pitch before pulling back, then dropped a bunt down the third-base line with a 1-1 count on what was scored a sacrifice.
Garciaparra was bunting for a hit, but third baseman Felipe Lopez was wide awake and made the play.
After Aramis Ramirez walked, Alou's pop fly landed softly in the glove of Darren Bragg, leaving the Cubs helplessly looking for a miracle.
reds 2, cubs 1 (12 innings)