So when St. Louis players trudged into the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, still smarting from a 5-3 defeat in 13 innings against the reigning World Series champions, Tony La Russa led all of the club's support staff in a round of applause.
"All of us that complement this team -- the trainers, equipment guys, the coaches, myself, traveling secretary -- we tipped our caps and clapped for these guys," La Russa said. "You can't watch that kind of effort for three days and have that kind of game at the end without giving them some kind of special recognition.
"We made a point to say what a privilege it was to be in the same uniform and watch that competition, and we gave them a round of applause and tipped our caps. That was really a great effort."
It was that kind of showing, in victory and defeat, for three days for the Cardinals at Fenway. A team that had grave regrets after the 2004 World Series -- not so much about the outcome, but about not showing what they were capable of -- harbored no such disappointment after a return trip to the historic stadium.
"We got beat," said starting pitcher Joel Pineiro, "but it was a great series and a great game. Today's not one of those games where you're walking with your head down and kicking stuff."
Had the game ended four innings earlier, it might have been viewed in a much different light. The Cardinals let a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning slip away, and they entered the ninth with a one-run deficit. But a down-to-the-last-strike rally against Jonathan Papelbon forced extra innings and ultimately helped cast the game with a memorable glow.
"Just a hellacious game," La Russa said. "That's one of those things that makes you enjoy this level of competition. Both clubs had chances. Lot of heroics to get something going, a lot of heroics to stop them. What a great competition."
The Cardinals took a two-run lead into the seventh, but the game turned against them over the final frames. Pineiro, who had been impeccable for 6 2/3 innings, missed badly with a fastball to Kevin Youkilis in the seventh, and Youkilis tattooed it for a solo homer.
In the eighth, Pineiro was betrayed by his defense when Rick Ankiel overran a Coco Crisp fly ball to center. Ankiel wasn't able to correct himself in time, and Crisp had an easy triple, chasing Pineiro.
"I just got to where I thought it was going to be, and when I got there, it wasn't," Ankiel said. "I just misplayed it, I guess. I think it cut, because I was right there. I was calling it, and all of a sudden, it was behind me."
Julio Lugo's sacrifice fly against Chris Perez tied the game. Perez walked the bases loaded, then Mike Lowell for the go-ahead run. Perez retired Jacoby Ellsbury for the second out, and Dustin Pedroia poked a single to right field.
Requiring only one out to escape with a tie intact, Perez couldn't deliver. He walked J.D. Drew to put the winning run in scoring position, loaded the bases with an unintentional-intentional walk to Manny Ramirez and walked Lowell for the deciding run.
"I just didn't make the pitches," Perez said. "I fell behind, tried to come in and missed inside. And the last one wasn't close either -- four bad pitches. Our game plan was to attack him with the fastball away, because he tries to pull everything, and my stuff matched up good for that situation. It just didn't work out that way."
Yet the Redbirds showed life in the ninth, mounting a mini-rally to force extras. After Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning, Chris Duncan walked and Adam Kennedy lined a game-tying double.
As regulation time turned to extra innings, the game continued to get more memorable. The Red Sox knocked leadoff doubles in the 10th, 11th and 12th, but never got the run home. The Cardinals, meanwhile, put a runner into scoring position with fewer than two outs in the 10th, 11th and 13th, but likewise never delivered.
Their best shot came in the 13th, when Duncan doubled and Kennedy singled to right field. Third-base coach Jose Oquendo sent Duncan home, but Drew made a tremendous throw and Jason Varitek held onto the ball as Duncan barreled into him. Skip Schumaker flied out to end the inning, and two batters later, the game was over. Mike Parisi allowed a leadoff single to Lowell, and Youkilis followed by crushing a pitch from Parisi over the Green Monster.
Game over. But point made, just the same. Facing a playoff-caliber opponent, the Cardinals played playoff baseball.
"You look back and it's an 'L,' but the tenacity that each one of our pitchers showed in going after those guys and getting the big outs when we needed them, and to come back in the ninth on Papelbon, it shows the heart and the reason this team is as good as it is," said Aaron Miles, who had five hits. "A lot of tough guys in here."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less