HOUSTON -- Long-time nemesis Bud Norris spoiled the Cardinals' shot at a sweep, outdueling Chris Carpenter in the final game played at Minute Maid Park this season.
Carpenter looked improved over his season debut, yet his fourth-inning hiccup stood as the margin of error in St. Louis' 2-0 loss to the Astros on Wednesday night.
The defeat stalled the Cardinals' climb toward capturing the final National League Wild Card. Still, the club ends its final road trip of the regular season with a 3 1/2-game cushion over the Dodgers and the Brewers, both winners on Wednesday.
Six more regular-season games are on tap for the Cardinals, all at home, beginning Friday.
"We have a tough homestand coming up," Carpenter said. "We have to go back there and win some ballgames, so that we have some momentum going into the Wild Card, if we get there."
Indeed, these upcoming games will come against teams much more accomplished than the Astros and Cubs, who the Cardinals beat up on over the past nine days. St. Louis went 7-2 in the critical stretch to help stretch their Wild Card lead.
The Cardinals play the NL East-leading Nationals over the weekend and finish the season with three games against the NL Central champion Reds. Particularly in need of a jolt is the Cardinals' offense, which has averaged less than four runs over a 23-game stretch. A strong stand from the pitching staff has helped to mask the offense's deficiencies, to a certain extent.
"When everybody is on, it's one of the best offenses in all of baseball. Nobody can deny it," manager Mike Matheny said. "But right now we have to find a way to make it happen. There's no doubt that we need the middle of the lineup to produce."
The second through fifth spots in the lineup finished a combined 1-for-15 on Wednesday.
As a result, Carpenter is left still looking for his first win, two starts into an abbreviated season. He actually started the only two Cardinal losses on this road trip, though he didn't get much assistance in either. A blown save cost him in Chicago last Friday. Against the Astros, the absence of offensive support gave him no room to slip.
Neither starter allowed a hit for the first three innings. Norris worked around a leadoff double in the fourth inning. In the bottom half of the frame, the Astros got to Carpenter.
Second baseman Jose Altuve drilled a first-pitch fastball off the facade above the left-field wall for a 1-0 lead. With two outs in the inning, Justin Maxwell swiped second and scored on Brett Wallace's single to right.
"I told myself I wasn't going to let Altuve hit a first-pitch fastball and I did," Carpenter said. "Then I hung a breaking ball [to Wallace]."
Otherwise, by all accounts, this was a leap forward from Carpenter's outing in Chicago.
"A lot better. A lot better," catcher Yadier Molina said. "His movement was a lot better."
Carpenter allowed only one other hit in his six-inning start. He pitched an inning deeper than he had last time, and Carpenter extended himself to a pitch count of 92.
The right-hander will have the opportunity to make one more regular-season start before the Cardinals must figure out where he slots into their postseason plans, should St. Louis advance.
"I'm glad I was able to build off Chicago and come in tonight and try to do a little better and give my team a chance to win," Carpenter said. "And if I can get better for the next one, that's what we're looking for. We have to remember this is my second game. I'm still working the kinks out a little bit."
Norris had no such kinks as he helped the Astros finish with four wins in 15 games against St. Louis this season. Two of those wins belong to Norris, who snapped a 12-game losing streak on Wednesday.
The right-hander shut out St. Louis over 7 1/3 innings, allowing just two hits and four total baserunners. The Cardinals couldn't manufacture a run after Jon Jay's leadoff double in the fourth. Carpenter's fifth-inning single was also unable to provide a spark.
A lack of situational hitting then foiled an opportunity for the offense to break through in the eighth.
With two on and nobody out, eight-hole hitter Pete Kozma twice failed to lay down a sacrifice bunt. His at-bat ended with a strikeout, Kozma's third of the night.
"You have to get those down," Matheny said. "We've made it very clear, we have to do the little things. We're not playing for the tie. We're playing for good baseball. You have to know your role and that's something that we've increased our workload on, but it doesn't always necessarily translate into production."
Norris' night ended with the strikeout and subsequent standing ovation as he walked off the field in the Astros' final home game as a National League club. Reliever Wilton Lopez preserved the shutout by not letting pinch-hitter Carlos Beltran or Jay to get a ball out of the infield.
That lowered Norris' career ERA in 15 starts against the Cardinals to 2.74. No one in the Majors has more wins against the Cardinals since 2009 than Norris, whose victory on Wednesday was his eighth during that stretch. It was also his best and deepest start of the season.
"I really took my time a little bit more," Norris said, when asked about his effectiveness. "Sometimes you rush the game and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you just need to try to find that rhythm and groove and that's a tough team to do that against."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.