ST. LOUIS—First Antonio Alfonseca lost his grip on a baseball.
Then he lost his grip on the game itself, costing the Cubs dearly Sunday in a 6-3 loss to St. Louis at Busch Stadium.
"I hate to lose a game like that," manager Dusty Baker said.
Alfonseca declined to talk about it afterward, though his reaction after the error said it all.
After the Cubs bounced back from a two-run deficit to tie the score 3-3 in the seventh, losing pitcher Juan Cruz (1-2) began the bottom of the inning by walking pinch-hitter Fernando Vina, who advanced on a sacrifice. With two outs and Vina on third, Baker called on Alfonseca to face right-handed-hitting Albert Pujols, who was 0-for-5 lifetime against the right-hander.
Alfonseca appeared to get the job done when he got Pujols to hit a weak chopper toward the mound. But Alfonseca fielded the ball tentatively, couldn't get a good grip, double-clutched and made a weak throw to first that sailed well to the right of Hee Seop Choi. Vina scored the go-ahead run on the error, and Pujols scampered around to third.
Instead of gaining his composure, the veteran reliever quickly imploded. After going 2-0 on Scott Rolen, he served up a 422-foot, two-run homer to left, giving the Cardinals a 6-3 lead.
If the familiar setting brought back any unsettling feelings for Alfonseca, it might have been because Busch Stadium was the site of his biggest meltdown in 2002. On July 28 at Busch, Alfonseca served up a ninth-inning grand slam to Edgar Renteria, capping a six-run ninth in a 10-9 St. Louis victory.
Baker said the Cubs might have been "dragging a little" since they were at the midway point of a 14-game road trip. Whatever the reason, a new lineup centered around Corey Patterson in the No. 3 hole failed to make Cardinals starter Jason Simontacchi work for his outs.
Simontacchi, who came in with a 7.41 earned-run average, needed only seven pitches to get out of the first inning and six in a perfect third. He threw only 61 pitches through six innings.
Cubs starter Shawn Estes struggled in a three-run first inning before settling down and lasting five innings. The key hit was a seeing-eye, two-run double over third base by Rolen that was fair by only inches.
"It's a game of inches," Estes said. "Nothing you can do about it but go try and make your pitch to the next guy."
But Estes didn't make his pitches. He walked Renteria and went 2-0 on Mike Matheny before giving up a run-scoring single. Trailing 3-1 in the seventh, the Cubs pulled within a run on Moises Alou's RBI single. After Troy O'Leary and Choi walked to load the bases, Dustin Hermanson induced Ramon Martinez to ground into a double play as the tying run scored. Damian Miller then grounded out with the go-ahead run at third.
"We did have some opportunities," Baker said. "Not many, but we did have some."