ST. LOUIS -- For the last 29 days, the Cardinals and Pirates have been separated by no more than two games in the National League Central. By the end of Saturday, they once again were tied.
This time the Mariners did a quiet Cardinals offense no favors, instead sending St. Louis to a 4-1 loss that cost the Cardinals their one-game division lead. With 14 games remaining on the regular-season schedule, the Cardinals are knotted at the top of baseball's tightest division. Cincinnati lurks 2 ½ games back.
"We know what's there, and the guys realize where we are," manager Mike Matheny said. "But it comes down to if you look too far to what's ahead and what we could possibly do that you lose sight of what we should be doing right now. We have to get some offense going."
After suffering the first loss of his Major League career, Michael Wacha was still lamenting the four-pitch walk that ignited the Mariners' key two-run fifth. But this defeat was as much on the shoulders of the offense, which couldn't make up for the lack of early life despite a brief spark late.
For the second straight night, the Cardinals did not score against an unfamiliar Seattle starter. James Paxton toyed with the offense for six innings, allowing just two hits -- both singles -- and not allowing either of those baserunners to scoot into scoring position until there were two outs.
It was his second Major League start -- and became his second Major League win.
"Obviously, facing somebody that's never been seen can have its challenges," Matt Carpenter said. "But sometimes facing the same guys over and over again can have the same challenge. He was tough. Definitely, I think, the fact that we had never faced him before worked to his advantage tonight."
The Cardinals scouted what video they had on Paxton in preparation for facing him and relied on reports from some of their September callups, who had faced the lefty in the Minors. None of it had much of an effect.
Instead, it was as it had been on Friday, when unknown foe Hisashi Iwakuma limited the Cardinals to three hits in his seven-inning start. Could that lack of familiarity be behind the sparse output?
"Certainly, there is nobody in here who is going to use that as an excuse, but there's definitely a part of that that has some [validity]," Carpenter said. "We face the Pirates 100 times and we know exactly what A.J. Burnett has, exactly what Francisco Liriano has and those kinds of guys. Then we come in there and we have these guys and nobody knows anything about anybody. If you combine that with a guy who throws well -- like Paxton did tonight -- it's tough."
The sluggish starts by the offense go back another series, too. Though the Cardinals have won three of their last five games, they've not scored in the first three innings in any of them. In the first six innings of those games, the Cardinals have totaled four runs and nine hits.
In comparison, the Cardinals have scored 11 times after the sixth. That included once in the eighth inning on Saturday, when Carpenter legged out a double, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch.
The offense continues to miss cleanup hitter Allen Craig, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury, and it has gotten no recent production from five-hole hitter Yadier Molina. He is hitless in his last 15 at-bats.
"Once in a while, you go through those ruts where you have trouble trying to get the offense jumpstarted," Matheny said. "That's what we've got going right now."
Wacha's night started out as well as Paxton's did. He retired the first six batters on 22 pitches and worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the third with consecutive strikeouts. His string of 23 2/3 straight scoreless innings then came to an end in the fifth.
After Dustin Ackley's leadoff single, Paxton stepped to the plate for the second time in his professional career. He had struck out on a failed bunt attempt two innings earlier and squared for a second try at a sacrifice.
Wacha never gave him the chance, missing on four straight pitches out of the zone.
"He was trying to give me a free out, bunting the ball," Wacha said. "It's unacceptable walking a pitcher."
The Mariners' pitching staff had previously been 0-for-20 with one walk in Interleague Play. Paxton hadn't been on base since he was a teenager playing on a summer league team in British Columbia.
"That was a little nerve-wracking," Paxton said. "I didn't really know what to do with the bat after I walked. So I just kind of dropped it and then told the umpire when I was at second that I hadn't run the bases in about 11 years. That gave him a little chuckle."
After a successful sacrifice moved the runners into scoring position, Franklin Gutierrez drove both home with a double to left.
Wacha would finish the fifth but got no deeper. He matched his career high with seven strikeouts, while setting a new high with his four walks.
"[I] just wasn't in sync," said Wacha, making his third start since moving back into the rotation. "[I] just didn't have command of the fastball like I wanted to today, and I ended up walking quite a few guys."
Kendrys Morales padded Seattle's lead with a solo homer off Tyler Lyons in the eighth. Fernando Salas gave up another run in the ninth.
The Cardinals, now 17-23 in games started by lefties this season, need a win on Sunday to ensure a .500 finish in Interleague Play.
"We have a chance to kind of control our own destiny here," Carpenter said. "Hopefully at the end of this whole thing, we'll be happy with where we are."
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.