NEW YORK -- When Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran returned to the Mets lineup Tuesday, most of the focus was on the Mets' two All-Stars, and rightfully so. But underneath the hullabaloo was what it meant for Angel Pagan.
Against his own wishes, Pagan had been slotted into the leadoff spot previously occupied by Reyes and struggled. In 12 games at the top of the order, Pagan batted .192 with an on-base plus slugging percentage that just cleared .500.
Pagan says he is most comfortable batting fifth due to his history of success with runners in scoring position, but the bases were empty when he struck the first walk-off homer of his career Thursday night against the Cardinals, a no-doubter to right field in the bottom of the 10th that lifted the Mets past St. Louis, 6-5.
"I've been battling through a lot of ups and downs, and this is part of it," Pagan said. "It's very special. My wife and kids were watching, so I'm pretty sure it's a big moment not only for me, but for my family."
Pagan's walk-off gave the Mets their only lead of the game on a night when the Cardinals jumped out to an early 4-0 advantage and seemed to have an answer for every Mets counter-punch.
The Cardinals manufactured their first run off R.A. Dickey in the top of the first inning. Skip Schumaker grounded a double down the first-base line, then Jon Jay laid down a sacrifice bunt to move him to third, and Matt Holliday hit a sacrifice fly to center field. It would not be the last time the Cards played small ball.
St. Louis expanded its lead to 4-0 with a trio of runs in the third. With runners on first and second and a run already in, Holliday doubled to right field just out of the reach of a sliding Carlos Beltran. Lance Berkman singled to left to plate Holliday and open up a four-run cushion.
New York then went to work on its first comeback of the evening, halving starter Kyle McClellan's lead in the bottom of the inning with the help of new father Josh Thole. In his first game back from paternity leave, Thole launched a double over the head of Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus to score Lucas Duda. Then Dickey helped his own cause by knocking in Thole with a single through the left side of the infield.
Beltran, who has been the subject of trade rumors in recent days, hit a two-run blast to the upper deck in right field that tied the game at four in the sixth inning. Beltran is now 4-for-7 with two walks, a homer and two doubles since missing several days with the flu.
"If it happens it happens, and it's outside of our control," Dickey said of the prospect of the Mets trading Beltran at the Trade Deadline. "We at least want to make it hard on the front office because he's a great player, and I surely don't want to have to face him. It'd be great if he stuck around."
But this was not the only mountain the Mets had to climb. With two outs in the seventh and a runner on third base, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa tried to break the tie by bringing in Albert Pujols to pinch-hit. The Mets countered by bringing in reliever Pedro Beato, who jammed Pujols with an 0-2 fastball and forced him to pop out to first and preserve the tie.
The Cardinals would capitalize in the eighth, though. Holliday singled to center field and moved to third base on a flyout and a groundout. Then, with two outs and the Holliday on third, Gerald Laird laid down a perfect bunt down the third-base line as Holliday raced in to score.
"We tried to have Murph come in and kind of get the runner back a little bit because we know that he's had a history of some bunts," Collins said. "But he's only bunted once this year, so we thought ... yeah, he caught us off guard."
The Mets once again came from behind in the bottom of the eighth. Pagan reached base on a throwing error by Descalso and advanced to second on Willie Harris' groundout. Thole picked up his second RBI with a game-tying single to left field.
"It was supposed to be down and away," said Jason Motte, who gave up the hit. "I threw a two-seamer, sinker, down and away and it just didn't really do anything. Stayed up and just kind of sat there, up out over. Didn't really get down."
Jason Isringhausen held the Cardinals at bay with two scoreless innings to set up Pagan's walk-off, the first time he pitched two innings since May 27, 2009.
Thursday, the Mets a third consecutive chance to beat the Cardinals.
"It would be nice to get three out of three," Pagan said. "I don't believe in sweeps. I just think about winning three. We're just trying to win ballgames and if it happens, it happens."
Aaron Taube is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.