PITTSBURGH -- The St. Louis Cardinals have seven more games remaining on this road trip, all against losing-record teams.
Daniel McCutchen pitched six shutout innings for his third victory as a major league starter, Neil Walker tripled with the bases loaded and the Pittsburgh Pirates dealt the Cardinals another damaging loss by winning 5-2 on Wednesday.
Dropping their fourth consecutive series against a losing-record team, the Cardinals fell 3½ games behind Cincinnati in the NL Central. St. Louis also remained a game back in the NL wild card race.
The Pirates, on pace to lose more than 100 games, had lost 13 of 15 before beating St. Louis on successive nights. Walker, a rookie batting .325 since July 17, also drove in three runs as Pittsburgh won 4-3 on Tuesday.
"This is the quality of baseball we need to be playing on a daily basis," Walker said. "How we played these last couple of days is what we're striving for on a daily basis."
Jake Westbrook (1-2) got into trouble in the third by hitting Chris Snyder with a pitch and Andrew McCutchen beat out an infield single. Walker tripled to center on a 3-2 pitch.
"I didn't want to walk him," Westbrook said. "I put a sinker down in the zone and he did a good job, he put a good swing on it."
Jose Tabata, another rookie, made it 4-0 an inning later with an RBI single, his sixth hit of the three-game series.
The Cardinals have fallen into an unusual pattern since the All-Star break: They beat good teams but lose to mediocre or bad ones. They are 12-2 against top clubs but 9-13 against teams that are .500 or own losing records. This month alone, they have dropped series to the Astros, Cubs, Brewers and Pirates.
"I don't care if it's home, the beginning of a road trip, the middle of a road trip, this is a disappointing series to lose," manager Tony La Russa said. "Our goal is to win the series and if you win the first game of a series, you're in charge."
McCutchen (2-5) wasn't scheduled to start, only to learn Tuesday night that scheduled starter Jeff Karstens was being skipped due to arm fatigue. The right-hander responded with the best of his 14 career starts, striking out five and walking two while giving up three hits.
"It was his day," Felipe Lopez said. "I don't want to talk bad about anybody, but I think we could have got him. We were just chasing bad pitches."
Before making the spot start, McCutchen had a 1.74 ERA in nine consecutive relief appearances. Manager John Russell said he's returning to the bullpen.
"We were hoping to get four, five innings out of him," Russell said.
McCutchen hadn't started in the majors since losing in St. Louis 11-1 on July 31, giving up four runs in 5 2/3 innings. His only other victory this season was a 3-2 decision over Philadelphia on July 1 in which he lasted 5 1/3 innings. He made six starts last season, beating Cincinnati 3-1 on Oct. 2.
McCutchen never hit higher than 93 miles per hour with his fastball, but effectively mixed in a slider and changeup.
"Today was a start where I didn't feel a whole lot of pressure," McCutchen said. "When you know you really need to do well this start or you'll be back in Triple-A, I didn't have that on me."
Chris Resop replaced McCutchen in the seventh and promptly gave up Lopez's seventh home run, a drive that scraped the right field foul pole. Russell questioned whether the ball struck slightly below the foul pole, but the umpires did not review the call.
Wil Ledezma avoided further scoring in the inning by striking out pinch-hitter Allen Craig with two runners on.
Evan Meek, who earned the save the night before, pitched the eighth. Joel Hanrahan worked the ninth and gave up Aaron Miles' RBI single.
Garrett Jones hit his 19th homer, a solo drive in the Pirates eighth against Blake Hawksworth.
The Cardinals play 22 of their remaining 38 games against sub-.500 teams. They play four games in Washington starting Thursday, followed by three in Houston. ... Tabata is 12 for 23 (.522) against St. Louis. ... Westbrook made his fifth start with St. Louis since being traded by Cleveland, and the first of his career against Pittsburgh. He gave up four runs and six hits in six innings. ... Pittsburgh hadn't won a series against St. Louis since May 2009. ... McCutchen lost his last five starts in Triple-A before rejoining the Pirates last month.