ST. LOUIS — Magic was happening on a chilly Saturday night in St. Louis, where the Cardinals were trailing the Philadelphia Phillies in a do-or-die Game 2 of their National League wild-card series, and Albert Pujols was stepping up to the plate.
He rapped a clean base hit in the final at-bat of his career.
The Cardinals failed to push across the run in the eighth inning, though, when MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado struck out. The game pressed on to the ninth. And suddenly there was more magic in the making as Yadier Molina came to bat with a runner on base, two outs and the NL Central champions still trailing by two runs.
He also rapped a clean single in the final at-bat of his career.
And then the magic was over.
Tommy Edman fouled out against Philadelphia closer Zach Eflin, sending the precocious Phillies spilling onto the field in a wild celebration. The Cardinals slowly slipped away, through their dugout and back to the clubhouse, the season — and an entire era in St. Louis baseball — having ended in a 2-0 loss and two-game series sweep.
“You know, it's something that it's not even next week,” Pujols said later, when asked when the finality of his superlative career would set in. “It'll take a couple of months to realize, and knowing the great team we have and the great chance we had this year to hopefully bring a championship — and it didn't happen.”
Pujols did just about everything he could this season, going on a second-half tear reminiscent of his first decade-plus with the Cardinals. It energized the city in the same way that Mark McGwire's home run chase once did, and when Pujols finally eclipsed 700 career homers, all that was left was to make a deep postseason run.
That he was doing it alongside Molina and longtime teammate Adam Wainwright — well, it seemed downright poetic.
Right up until the last out on Saturday night.
“It was a great season,” Molina said. “I mean, a great season, for everybody here in the clubhouse, for all the moments, the memories — the good memories. It was fun to watch Albert come back and do his thing. It was fun.”
Pujols maintained his typical, reserved demeanor as he stood in front of his locker for the final time after a 23-year career, one that rewarded him with two World Series rings and three MVP awards.
But the hardscrabble Molina began to let his emotions show, even appearing to choke back tears while describing the past 19 years.
“Just to be around the teammates, to be in this clubhouse, fighting for and winning games, I mean, that's what I'm going to miss most," he said, adding of Pujols: “I'm going to be his brother forever.”
First-year Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol praised the way Pujols, Molina and Wainwright — who has not decided whether to return next season — established a culture in the St. Louis clubhouse that will carry forward to the next generation, one that will be led by the likes of Dylan Carlson, Andrew Knizner and Nolan Gorman.
“I'll tell you this: That's a respectful group, one that is full of veterans,” Marmol said. “I was watching them retire Tim Duncan's number in San Antonio and (coach) Gregg Popovich's message during that speech was thanking him for allowing him to coach him. I let that sink in. We have a veteran group that's done this for a long time. The respect they had for me and this staff meant a lot. They did a lot to set the culture for the young group coming up.”
The complex contract that Arenado brought with him from Colorado when the Cardinals acquired him in a trade last year includes an opt-out clause after this season. But the All-Star third baseman is unlikely to forgo the $144 million he is due over the next five years and gamble on free agency, even after hitting .293 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs.
ABOUT FREE AGENCY
José Quintana was dominant after arriving from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, and the left-hander shut down the Phillies in Game 1 before All-Star closer Ryan Helsley let a win slip away in the ninth inning. Quintana is due to become a free agent now along with well-traveled outfielder Corey Dickerson, who hit .267 with six homers and 36 RBIs.
The Cardinals' top prospect, outfielder and third baseman Jordan Walker, could arrive as soon as next season, ushering in a whole new era for the club. Young shortstop Masyn Winn and right-hander Gordon Graceffo, who are also highly thought of in the St. Louis system, are probably another year away from the big leagues.