HOUSTON -- The pats on the back and on the behind, the nodding heads, they were all quick. But they all had the same meaning. They were the beginning of goodbye for one of the great players of the last two decades.

Larry Walker's career was half an inning away from almost certainly being over. Then one out away. Then one strike away. But then Albert Pujols, who was nine years old when Walker began his Major League career, hit a three-run homer that bought Walker one more game. The Cardinals' 5-4 win over the Astros in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series ensured that Walker's retirement will have to wait at least a little longer.

"I had a couple pats on the shoulder," Walker said. "Some guys looked at me, and I knew that look was like, 'Hey, this is it. Nice career. See you later.' But we finished the inning on defense, we were all pumped up, cheering each other, 'Let's go, it's not over.'"

Walker, like Busch Stadium, was born in 1966, and now the two will each get at least one more hurrah. Walker is hoping that there are more than two games left in each, but for now he'll take one. As will his teammates.

"You think about that," said teammate Reggie Sanders, who admitted he was one of the people who gave Walker a farewell tap, "but you can't think about that in that moment. Because there's so much going on. But we probably would have reflected on it at the end of the game."

Manager Tony La Russa was entirely conscious of the situation. When Houston manager Phil Garner called on lefty Mike Gallo to face Walker in the eighth inning, La Russa elected not to pinch-hit. It was partly because he felt Walker gave him the best chance, and partly because such a magnificent career did not deserve to end that way.

"I have an awareness of where we are with this," La Russa said. "The thought crossed my mind -- when the series started, today ...

"I wouldn't have done it anyway, but when he comes to bat against Gallo in the eighth -- I mean first of all, if I thought it would help us win, I'd do it -- but to be pinch-hit for in his last at-bat ... You've got a lot of time to think down there. A lot of thoughts go through your mind and I did think about it."

Any day now, Walker could be done. His body is sore, and he's not the same marvel who won an MVP award and three batting titles. But he's not done yet. And that's a pretty sweet sensation.