SEATTLE — The short-term view Saturday was mostly positive for the Mariners in their search over the last few weeks to grasp any available lifeline.
They built an early five-run lead and held on for a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals when closer Steve Cishek punctuated some stout bullpen work by protecting that one-run margin in the ninth inning.
The victory boosted the Mariners back over .500 at 38-37 and, combined with Friday’s walk-off magic, clinched their first winning series in June. Maybe, just maybe, they are pulling out of their extended swoon.
But as the Mariners begin to regain ailing starters in their rotation, they face a decision on Nathan Karns, who hasn’t worked past the fifth inning in any of his last five outings despite throwing 90-plus pitches in each one.
Karns also allowed 19 earned runs in 23 1/3 innings in that span.
"He’s struggled a little bit the last couple of times out," manager Scott Servais said. "He has a couple of good innings, and then he runs into trouble and struggles to get through it.
"That’s where the pitch count goes crazy on him. We’re looking for a lot of help. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. We do have some guys coming back."
Wade Miley is expected to return Wednesday from the disabled list. Taijuan Walker, after skipping a turn, is ticketed for Thursday. And newcomer Wade LeBlanc, in a spot start Friday, pitched six shutout innings.
Where that leaves Karns is anyone’s guess.
The Mariners, on Saturday, presented him with a 5-0 lead through two innings but, despite retiring the first eight Cardinals, he nearly squandered the entire margin before he exited after the fifth.
Karns was lucky to escape the third inning with just one run, but he served up a three-run homer in the fifth to Aledmys Diaz.
"I threw a fastball about letter high," Karns said, "and I felt that was a safe zone. But he got on top of it and drove it out. That’s just what happens when you get a long at-bat, and a guy has seen you several times.
"I couldn’t put him away… The three-run home run changed the outcome of my start."
The bullpen bailed out Karns with four scoreless innings.
Mike Montgomery replaced Karns to start the sixth inning and pitched around a single and an error by shortstop Ketel Marte before working a one-two-three seventh and getting the first out in the eighth.
Montgomery has allowed just one run in nine innings over three outings since shifting back to a long-relief role after struggling at times as a match-up lefty.
"That’s his game," Servais said. "Against righties or lefties, it really doesn’t matter. He just comes in and attacks them. He has good stuff. Guys like that are really valuable right there.
"A one-run game, but it’s early enough that you can let him run through a lineup one time. It helps line up the rest of your bullpen."
It did just that. Rookie right-hander Edwin Diaz got the final two outs in the eighth — aided by a web gem from third baseman Kyle Seager, who made a diving stop and throw for the final out at second.
Cishek closed out the victory by pitching around Matt Carpenter’s one-out double for his 17th save in 21 chances. Cishek spent the final two-plus months of last season with the Cardinals before becoming a free agent.
"If anything," he said, "I was a little more amped up, knowing those hitters and what I’ve seen them do in the past. They’re dangerous late in ballgames. That was the M.O. last year, coming back in the eighth and ninth inning."
Karns got the victory and improved to 6-2 despite his 4.56 ERA. He saw his two-out problems in the third, which included two walks, as stemming from not previously pitching from the stretch.
A 35-pitch fifth inning, which included Aledmys Diaz’s homer, started when Karns hit a batter and yielded an infield single.
"Up until that point," Karns said, "I felt I was doing fine. When you get those long innings, and you have to pitch around the first two guys getting on, it’s not ideal."
The Mariners struck for three two-out runs in the first inning after loading the bases against St. Louis starter Mike Leake (5-5) on singles by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz and a walk to Seager.
Dae-Ho Lee grounded a two-run single through the right side. Friday’s walk-off hero Adam Lind followed by grounding an RBI single up the middle.
The Mariners added two more runs in the second when aided by some shaky St. Louis defense after Marte and Leonys Martin opened the inning with singles and moved to second and third on Seth Smith’s fly to center.
After an intentional walk to Cano, which loaded the bases, the Cardinals got what they wanted — Cruz hit a hard grounder to third baseman Jhonny Peralta. But the ball ate up Peralta for a run-scoring error.
Seager followed with a grounder to second that should have been an inning-ending double play, but Carpenter booted the ball and settled for an one out at first. Another run scored, and the Mariners led 5-0.
It was enough. Just enough.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Left fielder Seth Smith ignored the distraction of a fan running onto the field in making a catch on Matt Carpenter’s fly ball in the fifth inning with runners at first and second and no outs.
PLUS: Dae-Ho Lee and Adam Lind had two-out RBI singles in a three-run first inning…Leonys Martin had three singles as the leadoff batter. He is batting .304 (38-for-125) in his last 34 games.
MINUS: Shortstop Ketel Marte failed to catch a two-out pop with a runner on first in the sixth inning with the Mariners leading by one run. It was his 12th error of the year, which is tied with Angels third baseman Yunel Escobar for the most among American League players.
STAT PACK: Dae-Ho Lee has 30 RBIs after getting a two-run single in the first inning. He is tied with Texas outfielder Nomar Mazara for the American League lead in RBIs among rookies.
QUOTABLE: "I felt pretty comfortable the last couple of outings," lefty reliever Mike Montgomery said. "I think (before that) I was in a couple of situations that I had never been before.
"I didn’t have the results that I wanted, but I think I’ve learned from that."
Montgomery suffered losses in three straight appearances as a short reliever before shifting back to a long-relief role. With 2 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday, he lowered his ERA to 2.38.
SHORT HOPS: Robinson Cano went 2-for-3 and has 231 career hits in interleague play. Only four players have more: Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera (259), Miami outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (255), Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre (248) and Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis (238)…all 10 of the Mariners’ hits were singles…the Mariners are 8-1 this season in interleague play. They need just three victories in their final 12 interleague games to finish with a winning record for the first time since going 11-7 in 2009.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners