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12/30/10 12:00 PM EST

In the 20th, Mets, Cardinals finally rested

Amazin's pull out win in contest that was scoreless for 18 frames

NEW YORK -- It had been a late afternoon start, a sunny day in St. Louis, and yet every light was glowing at Busch Stadium. The sky had first grown dim, then dark and inky in color, threatening to blot out the Arch and city skyline. Nearly every concession stand had long since closed, and yet a few scattered thousands remained in the stands, watching the Cardinals battle the Mets.

Down below, Francisco Rodriguez had just entered the visitors' dugout, telling manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen that he could not muster another pitch. Rodriguez had thrown 24 of them to five batters, coughing up the game-tying run. He was gassed. It was the 20th inning, after all, and he had warmed up nearly a dozen times in the bullpen.

So, with no other choice, Manuel and Warthen reluctantly turned to the man who had been pestering them for innings -- asking to hit, asking to pitch, begging to crash the party in any form or fashion.

"I didn't want to be up there for seven hours," Mike Pelfrey recalled, "and not win the game."

Pelfrey, of course, nailed down the save, icing both the longest game and the best month of his Major League career. And so ended the most bizarre night of the 2010 season.

10 for '10
12/24: Hoffman at crossroads
12/25: McDonald honors dad
12/26: A-Rod's HR historic
12/27: Season of gems
12/28: Rookies steal show
12/29: Galarraga moves on
12/30: 20-inning epic
12/31: Dangerous celebrations
1/1: Mattingly's mound gaffe
1/2: Conrad relishes slam

"I think everybody wanted it over," Pelfrey said, laughing. "It was a marathon game and we just wanted it to end."

It did end, of course, some 20 innings, seven hours and 652 pitches after it began. Combining to use 27 position players and 19 pitchers, the Mets and Cardinals traded punchless barbs until Jose Reyes finally drove home the winning run on a sacrifice fly off position player Joe Mather in the 20th. But the result was only part of the story. In this game, on this night, there were subplots and intrigue and even some lasting effects.

The Mets, reeling out of the gate, touched down in St. Louis needing victories as badly as any team can need them in April. Unsure of their status after an injury-plagued down year in 2009, the Mets entered play on the night of April 17 holding a 3-7 record, dead last in their division. Rumors regarding Manuel's job status were already swirling. The Mets could not ignore them.

On the opposite side of things stood the Cardinals, who had jumped out to a 7-3 record and first place in their division. They didn't need the game quite so much, and it showed in their strategy.

Consider, for example, that while Manuel was busy exhausting Rodriguez in the bullpen and keeping his other relievers in the game for multiple innings, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was cycling through his own roster in rapid fashion -- ultimately forcing him to turn to position players Mather and Felipe Lopez on the mound. Consider also that La Russa removed his cleanup hitter, Matt Holliday, in the 11th, unwilling to risk the health of a player who had missed the previous night's game due to illness. That swap forced the Cardinals to bat their pitchers in the cleanup spot throughout the later innings, thus allowing the Mets to intentionally walk third hitter Albert Pujols every time he came to the plate.

(For those keeping track, this all occurred hours after starting pitchers Johan Santana and Jaime Garcia had finished swapping zeroes, sparking the league's first 18 innings of scoreless baseball in 21 years.)

It all meant little at first, because the Mets could not muster much offense of their own. They scored once off Lopez in the 19th, which wasn't quite enough.

But then they scored again off Mather in the 20th, which -- thanks to Pelfrey -- proved to be plenty.

"It was a long day, and I just wanted the game over one way or another," Pelfrey said. "Luckily, we took the lead and I was able to close it out."

Afterward, the Mets sat in their clubhouse, drinking beer, checking long-forgotten cell phones and looking forward to collapsing in their various hotel rooms. For the Mets, the game turned out to be exactly the spark they needed -- they wound up closing out April on an eight-game winning streak, bulling their way back to the top of the division.

For every positive force, however, there is an equal and opposite negative one. Lopez, who entered the game feeling tightness in his throwing elbow, aggravated that injury during his mound cameo and ultimately spent three weeks on the disabled list. And without him, the Cards succumbed to a downward spiral in early May, allowing the Reds to overtake them in first place.

They wound up missing the playoffs, as did the Mets. But on one night in April, at least, neither team was even considering the postseason. They were reflecting back on what Pelfrey later called "an experience," before the starter-turned-closer fell back on a more elementary description.

"It was," Pelfrey said, "a very, very long game."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.