ST. LOUIS -- When it was over, various players milled about the clubhouse, some clutching beers, others grabbing cell phones. The Mets had just won -- or was it survived? -- a 20-inning game, beating the Cardinals, 2-1. They had all witnessed the unique and the exceptional, the inexplicable and the absurd. They were tired.

"We went through every single situation that you can imagine," said starting pitcher Johan Santana. "I've never seen that before."

Santana ran down the list of absurdities: a closer won the game, a starting pitcher saved it and a position player lost it. Two position players took the mound for the Cardinals; a pitcher played left field. And the Mets won despite allowing a run in the 19th, despite producing a total of nine hits in 20 innings.

Jose Reyes finally pushed the winning run across, with a sacrifice fly off outfielder Joe Mather in the 20th. Then starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey recorded three outs in the bottom of the inning to seal it.

So this, for the struggling Mets, is the formula for success? Twenty innings, two runs and one much-needed victory?

They'll take it.

"We needed to win this game," manager Jerry Manuel said.

Entering with his job performance under increasing scrutiny, Manuel most certainly did everything in his power to win it. For one afternoon (and evening and night), the Mets' manager seemed invincible.

Unlike his counterpart, future Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, Manuel kept his starting lineup largely intact throughout the later innings, foregoing double-switches and rationing his bullpen. Four Mets pitchers threw at least two innings of relief, allowing Manuel to save closer Francisco Rodriguez for a save situation.

That did not occur until the 19th, when Jeff Francoeur plated the game's first run with a sacrifice fly. Though they seemed primed for more, that was all the Mets could muster against Mather, who had not pitched competitively since his sophomore year of high school.

Rodriguez, who had warmed up every inning from the eighth through the 19th, estimated that he threw more than 100 pitches in the bullpen. And he admitted to being somewhat gassed by the time Manuel finally called his name.

With one out, Rodriguez served up a double to Albert Pujols, then a game-tying single to Yadier Molina.

"Unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "I've never been part of a game like that before."

The Mets had previously been involved in the longest scoreless game in Major League history, losing, 1-0, to the Astros in 24 innings on April 15, 1968. And the longest game in Mets history came against the Cardinals, a 4-3 loss on Sept. 11, 1974, at Shea Stadium. In their 49-year history, the Mets have played merely three games longer than 20 innings.

Mather, finally, was the one to crack in this one, flinging his pitches high in the strike zone. Though the Mets could not score off utility infielder Felipe Lopez, the first position player La Russa used on the mound, they found more success off the full-time outfielder.

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.
Date Road team Home team No. of innings
5/1/1920 Brooklyn Robins (1) Boston Braves (1) 26
5/8/1984 Milwaukee Brewers (6) Chicago White Sox (7) 25
9/11/1974 St. Louis Cardinals (4) New York Mets (3) 25
9/1/1906 Philadelphia A's (4) Boston Pilgrims (1) 24
4/15/1968 New York Mets (0) Houston Astros (1) 24
7/21/1945 Detroit Tigers (1) Philadelphia A's (1) 24

"I kept telling myself, 'Be ready,'" Mather said. "'You're going to have a chance to win this game.' 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."

More proactive was Pelfrey, who lobbied his manager to let him pinch-hit, pinch-run -- anything, really. Finally, with Rodriguez gassed, Manuel turned to Pelfrey for the 20th. And despite some hiccups -- a single and a walk brought the few thousand remaining at Busch Stadium to their feet -- Pelfrey managed to record his first career save.

Afterward, Rodriguez joked that he wanted to trade his win for Pelfrey's save.

"I would do that," Pelfrey said. "Absolutely."

The decisions came six hours and 53 minutes after Jaime Garcia's first pitch to Reyes, making this the third-longest game in Mets history in terms of time. The Mets lost a 23-inning game on May 31, 1964, that lasted seven hours and 23 minutes.

Now, these Mets have their own stories to tell.

"It was the most unbelievable game I've ever been a part of," Francoeur said. "How we won, I have no clue."

La Russa has an idea. After Garcia no-hit the Mets for the first five innings, the Cardinals' manager began shifting and switching and swapping his players. In the top of the 11th inning, La Russa double-switched cleanup hitter Matt Holliday out of the game, reasoning that he didn't want Holliday -- who sat out Friday's game due to an illness -- to spend any more time on the field.

So instead of one of the game's premier power hitters batting after Pujols, the Cardinals made due with the pitcher's spot. And they paid for it.

In the 14th inning, the Cards put men on second and third with no outs. But Hisanori Takahashi struck out Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick in succession, intentionally walked Pujols, then punched out pitcher Blake Hawksworth -- batting in Holliday's spot -- to end the threat.

In the 16th, they put two runners on with one out, only to have backup catcher Bryan Anderson -- batting in Holliday's spot -- hit into a double play.

The Cardinals also loaded the bases off Fernando Nieve with two outs in the 10th, but Alex Cora -- who entered the game having played four innings at first base in his 13-year career -- tumbled into the stands to make a highlight-reel grab of Holliday's foul pop.

"I knew I was getting close to the wall, so I jumped," Cora said.

Consider that a bit of reason in a game that defied all logic.

"Crazy game," Reyes said.

That was all he could say.

"Crazy game, man," Reyes said. "Crazy, crazy game."