ST. LOUIS -- In one dugout, there was intensity, a playoff race in full bloom. In the other, there was education.
The Mets are now five years removed from their most recent postseason appearance, three years removed from their most recent pennant race. Almost their entire roster has turned over since the Mets last sniffed meaningful games in October, back before injuries and inconsistencies turned the franchise on its side.
The Cardinals entered Tuesday's play in an entirely different place, and it showed throughout their 11-6 victory over the Mets. Desperately needing a win to keep pace with the Braves in the National League Wild Card race, the Cardinals applied constant pressure before an anxious mass of red T-shirts and jerseys at Busch Stadium.
The Mets could not withstand it.
"They're a good team," said starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, one of the few Mets around during the team's last playoff chase in 2008. "I think they're right there in the hunt for a reason."
They certainly showed it. Half an inning after reclaiming the lead, 6-5, on a bases-loaded walk, the Mets -- with two outs and no one on -- finally relented to an evening's worth of offensive pressure. Reliever Josh Stinson loaded the bases on two quick hits and a walk before lefty specialist Tim Byrdak gave the Cardinals their first lead on pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot's two-run double to the left-center-field gap.
The rest was formulaic. Following an intentional walk, another reliever, D.J. Carrasco, served up a three-run triple to another pinch-hitter, Adron Chambers. By the time the 10-man rally was complete, seven consecutive Cardinals had reached base with two outs, six of them crossing the plate. Ahead or tied all evening, the Mets suddenly found themselves staring at a five-run deficit against one of the game's hottest teams.
"It's tough," said Mets manager Terry Collins. "These guys, they battle back and battle back and keep themselves in the game. They just kept hanging in there, and it's a tribute to the way those guys go about things, but we've got to figure out a way to shut it down."
So this is what playoff baseball looks like. The Cards certainly did not look the part of a postseason contender early on, when starting pitcher Edwin Jackson coughed up five runs in five innings. No single significant blow accounted for all the damage, but instead a series of minor ones: Lucas Duda's RBI double, for example, Josh Thole's single and Pelfrey's run-scoring ground-rule double.
"Those guys put together some tough ABs tonight," Jackson said. "They went up there, they did their job. They made you throw balls across the plate."
But Pelfrey could not hold the lead against Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman et al, giving up three runs in the third inning and two in the fifth. In his first start at Busch Stadium since closing out the Mets' 20-inning victory over the Cardinals last April, Pelfrey lost the lead on Berkman's two-run single in the fifth.
"All the hits I gave up, the ball was up," Pelfrey said. "That's one thing I can't do."
From there, it became a battle of the bullpens and, perhaps, a study in who wanted -- or needed -- this game more. That's no knock on the Mets, who are playing out the string shorthanded and in evaluation mode. It's more a nod to the sudden might of the Cardinals, who have won 11 of their past 13 games in clawing back into the Wild Card race.
Relatively speaking, it was not so long ago that the Mets were in a similar spot, trying to nab a playoff berth amid a sea of like-minded contenders. The pressure and intensity of late-September games used to rest squarely on their shoulders; now, they can do nothing more than play the role of spoiler.
Yet in relishing that responsibility, the Mets at least may be doing themselves a service. With much at stake in front of an anxious Busch Stadium crowd, the Mets -- whether knowingly or not -- gained some valuable experience on one of the game's premier stages. Doubtless, the Wild Card-leading Braves snuck more than a few glances at Sun Life Stadium's out-of-town scoreboard Tuesday throughout their own 4-0 victory over the Marlins. Doubtless, they cursed and cheered the Mets in turn.
If the Mets are to return to such relevance themselves, they must continue to educate their young players -- Duda, Ruben Tejada and Co. -- in what it takes to play winning baseball at the highest level.
"These games need more, and I think the guys pick up their play a little bit in these games," Collins said.
In that sense, then, Tuesday's loss may have been more instructive than the Mets even realized.