ST. LOUIS - Fresh from a sweep of the woeful Washington Nationals, the Phillies headed to the banks of the Mississippi last night and saw the schedule toughen up on them.

No problem, right? The St. Louis Cardinals would certainly be a more difficult foe than the Nationals, but the Phils had their ace, Cole Hamels, on the mound. Nice way to start a series.

Not exactly. Hamels was tagged for five runs, four on homers, in six innings as the Phils suffered a 6-3 loss at Busch Stadium.

Hamels has not won since July 3. In his last five starts, three of them Phillies' losses, the lefthander has given up eight home runs, including two last night. Opponents have scored 14 runs on Hamels, though six have been unearned, in his last two starts.

"I'm not hurt," he said after the loss. "I'm perfectly fine. This is the year I'm not going on the disabled list."

So why has he struggled? Location of pitches. "In the big innings, my change-up has been up," he said. "I haven't been able to locate it down. That's definitely an issue. I need to locate that pitch to have success."

Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse beat his old team for the second time this season, both at Busch Stadium, where he is 7-1 with a 2.92 ERA in 14 starts.

Despite the loss, the Phillies maintained a one-game lead on the Mets, 7-3 losers to the Astros, in the National League East.

Lohse pitched no-hit ball for 42/3 innings before Hamels singled. The righthander gave up a two-run homer to Pat Burrell in the sixth and did not make it out of the inning on a steamy night. But the early cushion his mates built was enough to snap the Phils' five-game winning streak.

Last year, the Phillies acquired Lohse in a deadline trade with Cincinnati. He started 11 games, and the Phils won nine. The Phils tried to re-sign Lohse in November - they made him a three-year, $21 million offer - but he held out hope of landing a larger deal on the free-agent market. The big payday never came, and Lohse signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Cardinals after spring training had begun.

At 13-3, Lohse has been a major contributor to the Cards, who entered last night tied for the lead in the NL wild-card race. He was supported by two important home runs, both off Hamels.

After allowing a single and walk to open the bottom of the third, Hamels tried to sneak a 2-1 fastball by rookie Joe Mather. The 89-m.p.h. pitch was up in the zone, and Mather hit it over the left-field wall for a 3-0 lead. Later in the inning, the Cards parlayed two infield hits, an error by third baseman Eric Bruntlett, and a sacrifice fly into another run.

The Cards built their lead to 5-0 when Ryan Ludwick homered on a first-pitch change-up with two outs in the fifth.

After Burrell's homer made it a two-run game, the Cardinals went back ahead by three when Ludwick homered in the eighth off reliever Ryan Madson.