ST. LOUIS -- Manager Tony La Russa and his staff stood and applauded. Albert Pujols smiled and chuckled in his postgame interview. Teammates thrust a baseball bat and a shoe into Kyle Lohse's media scrum, pretending to be reporters.
You'd have thought the Cardinals won a 20-inning game, rather than losing one.
In one of the strangest, longest and undeniably most memorable games in recent franchise history, the Cardinals fell to the Mets, 2-1, at Busch Stadium on Saturday night. The game lasted six hours and 53 minutes, featured 19 pitchers, 35 men left on base, 35 strikeouts and a surprisingly robust portion of the 43,709 ticket buyers still in attendance at the last out.
"All the staff, coaches, trainers, everybody, equipment guys, got in there and gave them a standing ovation," La Russa said. "You can't have an effort like that without feeling great about the effort. The outcome was disappointing, but the heart of the club showed, the competitiveness."
The game went 18 innings without a run crossing the plate -- and then three straight half-innings saw a run score. The longest any Major League game has gone before its first run is 23 1/2 innings. The Astros beat the Mets, 1-0, in the bottom of the 24th on April 15, 1968. The last game to last 18 innings without a run was Aug. 23, 1989, when the Dodgers beat the Expos.
Jose Reyes' sacrifice fly against infielder/outfielder Joe Mather delivered the winning run, but the real culprit for the Cardinals was an absence of offense -- exacerbated by an 11th-inning double switch.
An inning after infielder Felipe Lopez pitched a shutout 18th, Mather took his place. He issued two walks, one intentional, and hit a batter -- loading the bases. Jeff Francoeur hit a sacrifice fly to left field -- where pitcher Lohse had been pressed into service -- that scored Reyes. Then in the bottom of the 19th, Yadier Molina singled home Pujols to tie it at 1.
However, Mather again got into trouble in the 20th, as two singles put runners on the corners. Reyes drove home the winner with a sac fly to center.
"I kept telling myself, 'Be ready. You're going to have a chance to win this game,'" Mather said. "I got to hit, and I was like, 'All right, you've got a shot to win this game.' Then they put me on the mound, and I really had a shot to win the game, literally. And it couldn't have been more the opposite. I actually got the loss."
Starter Jaime Garcia was absolutely brilliant for the Cardinals, going toe-to-toe with superstar Johan Santana and not giving an inch. Garcia didn't allow a base hit until Angel Pagan singled in the sixth inning, and that was the only hit against him in seven innings. He struck out five against two walks, induced 12 ground-ball outs vs. three in the air, and got 21 outs on 97 pitches.
Santana was every bit as good. The two-time Cy Young Award winner struck out nine Cardinals and allowed four hits and one walk over seven shutout innings. He worked around a leadoff double in the first and two one-out baserunners in the second, and was scarcely threatened after that.
Longest game by innings
The Mets-Cardinals 20-inning thriller on Saturday trails the Majors' longest game in terms of innings by six. The scores are located in parentheses.
No. of innings
Brooklyn Robins (1)
Boston Braves (1)
Milwaukee Brewers (6)
Chicago White Sox (7)
St. Louis Cardinals (4)
New York Mets (3)
Philadelphia A's (4)
Boston Pilgrims (1)
New York Mets (0)
Houston Astros (1)
Detroit Tigers (1)
Philadelphia A's (1)
The Cardinals' bullpen had an outstanding day as well. Kyle McClellan pitched two perfect innings, with Mitchell Boggs, Trever Miller, Jason Motte, Dennys Reyes, Blake Hawksworth, Ryan Franklin and even Lopez all giving strong efforts. But the Cardinals ran out of pitchers before the Mets did, and that cost them. Closer Francisco Rodriguez got the win for New York, and Mike Pelfrey, usually a starter, recorded the save.
Perhaps the strangest points in a very strange game came in the bottom of the 12th -- and again in the 14th. Fernando Nieve retired the first two batters of the 12th before Skip Schumaker singled and Ryan Ludwick reached on catcher's interference. With the pitcher looming in the No. 4 spot in the batting order, the Mets wisely walked Pujols intentionally. But with only catcher Bryan Anderson available on the bench, La Russa let pitcher (and former catcher) Motte hit for himself -- even with three relievers available behind him.
Motte struck out, and the game marched on to the 13th and then the 14th and the scene repeated itself. Mather led off with a double, and Brendan Ryan reached when pitcher Hisanori Takahashi bobbled his bunt. Yet Schumaker and Ludwick struck out, Pujols was again intentionally walked and this time Hawksworth fanned with the winning run 90 feet away.
"At that point, you don't have much pitching left," La Russa said. "If you can have a couple innings, you try to get a couple innings. We would have been pitching a position player long before the 17th if we hadn't gone that way."
Both situations resulted from a decision in the 11th. With Matt Holliday struggling to an 0-for-5 day, La Russa lifted him in a double-switch, putting the pitcher's spot behind Pujols in the batting order. Holliday had missed the previous game due to illness, and La Russa said he had no qualms about pulling his cleanup hitter when he did.
"The guy's sick," La Russa said. "He got five at-bats. Do you really think it would have been smart to keep him playing? ... I don't think that's why we got beat. I think asking Matt to have five was more than enough. I didn't have a crystal ball, but I really thought that was enough from him."
Mets manager Jerry Manuel was happy to take advantage of the chance to walk Pujols repeatedly.
"Once that showed up, we just decided, 'Hey, we're not going to let him beat us if they don't have anybody behind him,'" Manuel said. "We just kind of managed it in that form or fashion."
Another two innings later, the Mets pitched to Pujols with a runner on base, and he singled Ludwick to second base. But when Anderson, finally pinch-hitting, hit into a force play at second, Ludwick tried to score on the play, waved around by third-base coach Jose Oquendo. Jose Reyes threw home to Henry Blanco, who got Ludwick before he could get back to third and another chance had gone by the boards.
Ludwick was at the center of the Cards' last missed chance as well. He was thrown out at second on a hit-and-run play in front of Pujols' 19th-inning double. That took away a potential run. Had the Cardinals scored twice in the 19th, of course, the game would have been over. Instead, it marched on.
And while the final result was tough to swallow, no heads hung in the clubhouse postgame.
"They took the lead, and then we came back against one of the best closers in the league, that tells you how special this group is," Pujols said. "To be able to continue like champions, this is a ballclub that you can look at. I'm blessed to be part of such a great group of guys."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.