Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they don't have the kind of cushion where they can pay attention to such matters.
The only thing that mattered to the Redbirds on Tuesday was the final score, a punch-in-the-gut 8-7 defeat after St. Louis led by six runs in the fifth inning. Albert Pujols enjoyed the kind of night on which MVP-caliber seasons are built, but Carlos Beltran trumped him with the kind of singular moment on which MVP awards are won.
Beltran cranked a first-pitch two-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth against Jason Isringhausen, sending 49,166 Mets fans into utter delirium. Beltran was greeted by chants of "M-V-P!" as Shea's stands literally shook.
"We lost the game, man," said Pujols. "That's it. It doesn't matter. It's not about me, it's about the team."
St. Louis saw its lead in the National League Central slip to one game over second-place Cincinnati, which routed Houston on Tuesday.
Beltran's shot was the third Mets long ball of the night, after Carlos Delgado cranked a pair off of starter Jeff Weaver. Isringhausen got too much of the plate with a cut fastball to a man who has hurt him and the Cardinals before, and the game was over in a flash.
"Any time that you can end the game with one swing of the bat, you're going to be aggressive," Isringhausen said. "I was trying to use his aggressiveness against him, trying to get the ball in on him. Tried to jam him. But I just wasn't able to do it, and he hit a homer."
Isringhausen (4-7) was charged with the loss, but if not for a four-run fifth against Weaver, the game would never have been so close.
Pujols certainly did all he could to give the Redbirds a rout in the opener of a much-hyped three-game series. He hit two home runs and drove in a career-high seven runs, giving him 38 homers and 105 RBIs on the year.
Pujols tied a Cardinals franchise record with his sixth straight 100-RBI season, equaling the mark set by Sunny Jim Bottomley from 1924-29. Stan Musial and Johnny Mize each had five straight years with 100 or more while wearing a Cardinals uniform. Pujols' 105 RBIs are second to Ryan Howard's 113 in the National League.
"He came out gunning," Weaver said. "He had an incredible game. It makes it even tougher when a guy like that does everything he can to help the team win, and we come up short."
Delgado's first homer, a solo shot off Weaver in the second, put New York ahead with the game's first run. Two innings later, Pujols seized the spotlight with a three-run jack, and St. Louis led, 3-1. In the fifth, Pujols hit a grand slam, and the visitors held a six-run advantage.
And it wasn't enough. Delgado hit a grand slam of his own in the bottom half of the fifth, and a rout was suddenly a close game once again. Delgado's slam was absolutely crushed, but he shouldn't have had the chance to hit with the bases loaded.
Given the six-run lead, Weaver issued a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee. Jose Reyes reached when Chris Duncan dropped a popup, and the error put two men on with no outs. Paul Lo Duca singled to load the bases.
Beltran followed with a bouncer to Weaver that might have gone for a double play. However, Weaver flipped the ball home instead of making a strong throw, and the Cards only recorded one out on the play. Five pitches later, Delgado drilled career home run No. 400 deep to right field and it was a two-run game again.
"The only mistake [Weaver] made [in the fifth] was walking the leadoff hitter," said manager Tony La Russa. "That's the only mistake he made. We made an error in left field. Beltran hit the ball back to the pitcher."
Weaver agreed with La Russa that a double play was unlikely on Beltran's ball, because of the outfielder's speed, but the flip ensured that only one out would be recorded.
The Mets cut the lead to a single run in the sixth against rookie Adam Wainwright on an infield single, a walk, a sacrifice bunt and an RBI groundout. Randy Flores, Tyler Johnson and Braden Looper held the fort in the seventh and eighth before New York broke through in the ninth.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.