ST. LOUIS -- It was part Ali-Frazier, part Magic-Bird and all awe-inspiring.
It was two heavyweights of the game going move for move against each other in a back-and-forth drama that pulled their teams along for an incredible ride.
In the midst of a National League Championship Series that proved you need a team effort to win in October, an individual battle of superstars took center stage, with the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Astros' Carlos Beltran elevating their games above what was a tremendous showcase of baseball.
There was little question that to the victor would go the Most Valuable Player Award spoils, and Pujols was the man.
But after the Cardinals took the pennant with a 5-2 win in Game 7 on Thursday, Pujols made it clear that in his mind he was merely a cog in the World Series wheel for St. Louis.
"It's great to be named MVP, but I think everybody in that locker room deserves to be the MVP," said Pujols, the 24-year-old first baseman who has been a superstar since he joined the Cardinals in 2001. "That trophy is going to stay in the locker room for the rest of my career."
It will always have the name Albert Pujols on it, however.
Had the series gone the other way, it almost certainly would have said Carlos Beltran. In the end, Pujols got in the last punch, swished the last shot. What he really did was he drove in the last run -- at least the game-tying run on Thursday -- and his team moved on to the World Series.
That was the final line of separation between two of baseball's biggest young superstars, as Pujols took the MVP honors with a remarkable offensive series that included clutch hits and just simple, consistent greatness at the plate.
Pujols batted .500 in the series, becoming only the fifth player to bat .500 or better in an LCS, with 10 runs scored, four homers and nine RBIs. He set an NLCS record and matched the Yankees' Hideki Matsui for the LCS record in two categories, with 14 hits and 28 total bases. Matsui set those marks in this season's ALCS.
He hit safely in six of the games, notching three hits in three of the meetings. He homered in four of them and perfectly played the part of superstar slugger everyone already knew that he is.
Beltran wasn't that far off from that storyline. But, in the finale, it was Pujols doing the damage last.
Pujols drove in the tying run in the sixth inning of Game 7 with a clutch double into the left-field corner, off future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens. He scored the go-ahead run one pitch later, when Scott Rolen hit a two-run homer for the big blow of the night.
"He's a terrific hitter," Astros manager Phil Garner said of Pujols. "What makes that lineup so tough, is there's other guys in the lineup that can beat you, too. We felt like Rolen was starting to swing the bat well tonight. We were concerned about that.
"We felt like we made some pitches on Albert that we could get him out on. Truth of the matter was, he came up with a big hit to tie the ballgame."
Meanwhile, Beltran also took his performance in the NLCS to record heights as part of a monster postseason.
Albert Pujols / 1B
Weight: 225 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Even though his power numbers, matching Pujols with four homers, got the most attention, Beltran made things happen on the base paths throughout the series, batting .417 overall, stealing four bases and scoring an LCS record 12 runs. His single and steal helped lead to Jeff Kent's three-run, walk-off homer in Game 5. And he created a run almost singlehandedly in Game 7 by walking, stealing second and forcing an errant throw from Cards center fielder Jim Edmonds when he took third. He scored when the ball went into the dugout.
About the only thing he didn't do was come through in the end like Pujols did in Game 7. And after his Game 7 heroics, it was Pujols who walked into a champage-drenched clubhouse at Busch Stadium as the MVP.
For Pujols, it was just another series at the office.
"I just want to do my job, not try to do too much," Pujols said. "I was thinking to myself, 'There's no hero on this team.' Everybody came together during the season, and we had a great year."
Pujols did do too much, though -- as far as the Astros were concerned, at least.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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