"This was the time," third baseman Aramis Ramirez lamented in the morning, even before the Reds swept the Brewers out of town with a trio of sensational starting pitching performances.
Milwaukee right-hander Mike Fiers was a tough-luck loser for the second time in three starts, and the Brewers fell to 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Reds, capping a 4-5 stretch against the three teams they trail in the division -- Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
"All three teams, I would imagine, are going to be in it until the end," said left fielder Ryan Braun. "I don't think one team is that much better than anybody else, where one of them is going to run away with it. Honestly, all three of those teams are playing good baseball, have good starting pitching, good bullpens and play good defense. Once you have those three things, you're always going to be consistently in games."
And the Brewers?
"We're a distant fourth right now, and we should be," Braun said. "All three of those teams have played better than us. They just have. The ability is there, we just haven't executed."
Meanwhile, general manager Doug Melvin was back in Milwaukee pondering some big questions. Does his team have what it takes to make an improbable climb up the standings? Where does free-agent-to-be Zack Greinke fit into the club's future? If Greinke's time in Milwaukee appears short, is it time to press the reset button?
The answer to those questions should become clear by the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"It's not a good time to lose three games to [the Reds]," manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's a disappointing weekend, but I think the guys will still come out and get after it against Philly."
The Brewers begin a three-game series against the equally disappointing Phillies on Monday, with Roy Halladay pitching the opener and Cliff Lee vs. Greinke set for Tuesday.
"We'll see what happens, but this sure set us back," Roenicke said of the Reds' sweep. "To get this far behind when you've got three teams in front of you, it's tough to do."
Hope for the Brewers' future came Sunday from starter Fiers, who lowered his ERA to 1.96 after his sixth consecutive quality start, but he was undone by a close call and his own costly error in the third inning.
The Brewers had just taken a 1-0 lead on Ramirez's two-out single in the top of the third when Reds leadoff man Chris Heisey knocked a one-out single in the bottom of the inning. Heisey stole second, at least according to second-base umpire Tim Timmons, who ruled a similarly close call in the Reds' favor at third base the night before.
That call loomed large when Wilson Valdez plated Heisey with a single. Valdez moved to third on Fiers' errant pickoff throw and scored the go-ahead run on Brandon Phillips' sacrifice fly.
"That's the game," Roenicke said. "I know things can change after that, but that's two runs. I had him out. I went back and looked at the replay, and I [still] had him out."
Fiers had the same view.
"I had a great look -- my opinion was a little different than [Timmons']," Fiers said.
Those two runs represented all the Reds could muster against Fiers, who allowed two runs, one earned, on five hits in six innings. He has a 0.89 ERA over his last six starts (four earned runs in 40 2/3 innings), and his 1.96 ERA leads Major Leaguers who have pitched at least 50 innings this season.
The Brewers have scored three runs in the last three games Fiers has started. All three were losses.
"I'm tired of losing, man," Fiers said. "It is frustrating when you don't score a lot of runs, but I could have done one run better today. I threw a ball away where all we're trying to do is keep the guy close. I ended up giving them a run, which they didn't earn. I think we should still be playing right now."
Cueto lowered his own ERA to 2.23 -- second best in the NL among qualifying starters -- by limiting the Brewers to one run on eight hits in seven innings. The Reds have won six of Cueto's last seven starts against the Brewers, dating back to 2009.
The Brewers missed a golden opportunity in the first inning, when they loaded the bases with two outs. Cueto struck out Rickie Weeks to end the threat.
The Brewers out-hit the Reds, 10-8, but stranded at least one runner in scoring position in the first, fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Milwaukee stranded 11 runners in all, and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Braun struck out against Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman (17th save) to end the game after Carlos Gomez's daring steal of second base on a pickoff play. Roenicke indicated that he called for that play.
"I had opportunities -- we had plenty of hits, guys on base," Braun said.
The Reds capped an 8-2 homestand with Sunday's victory and applied further pressure to the second-place Pirates, who have won five straight and are only a half-game back in the division.