It is entirely conceivable that Sunday's win over the Cardinals was Pujols' last time wearing St. Louis' home whites. His eighth-inning groundout could have been his last at-bat as a Cardinal at Busch Stadium. Pujols knew it, the fans knew it -- even the Cubs knew it.
So when Pujols came to the plate for the first time during Sunday's 3-2 win, they showed their love. The three-time National League Most Valuable Player received a 40-second standing ovation from the home faithful. Pujols, who has remained stoic about the situation in recent days, acknowledged the crowd by doffing his batting helmet, and opposing pitcher Randy Wells stepped off the mound to allow Pujols his moment.
The slugger made sure to say all the right things, all week. But reality is reality.
"It's pretty emotional, obviously," Pujols said. "You have the best fans in baseball; over 3 million people every year come and support this ballclub. Obviously, it's not over. Our season's not over. And I just want to make sure that I stay focused and do what I need to do."
The Cubs did not begrudge Pujols his moment.
"All the applause and the standing ovations are very well deserved," said Chicago first baseman Carlos Pena. "That's an understatement for all that he's done here in St. Louis. You can't help but feel proud. He's a fellow Dominican player and has represented us well -- and not only hitting home runs and just crushing baseballs, but he's a great man. Most importantly, he's a great man. I'm very happy for him."
Pujols lined into a double play in the first inning and went 0-for-4 on the day, ending a streak of 40 consecutive games in which he reached base with a hit or walk. But it was still a successful day, because the Cardinals inched within one game of a playoff spot.
A one-game tiebreaker would be held at Busch Stadium on Thursday if the Cardinals and Braves finish with the same record. Better yet, the Cards would love to clinch the Wild Card outright and have their next home game be Game 3 of a National League Division Series.
In the meantime, though, St. Louis celebrated one of the greatest players in franchise history on Sunday.
"We've been treated to 11 years of the best baseball in the history of our game," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "Our fans know it. I just hope they get to see him again, not just in 2012, but this year."
Pujols is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and he announced during Spring Training that he would not negotiate before the Cards' season ends. The club will still have a few weeks of exclusive negotiating time before free agency begins, depending on how deep it goes in the playoffs, but it appears likely that Pujols will hit the open market.
The Cardinals and their fans are bracing themselves for the possibility that Pujols will be wearing another uniform next year. Pujols himself once again declined to get into the subject after Sunday's game.
"Those decisions are going to come, like I told you guys in Spring Training, in the offseason," Pujols said. "Right now, I'm still a Cardinal. I'm going to do my best to help this organization to get to the next level, and that's my job. If I try to get distracted, thinking about what's going to happen this offseason, what's going to happen the next four games, I don't think I'm doing my job."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.