ST. LOUIS -- When it was all said and done, after his team beat the Padres 5-0, Rick Ankiel stood in front of his locker with the sweat still dripping down his face and a smile that just wouldn't go away.

Why not?

This night belonged to Ankiel -- from start to end.

From the moment he walked through the clubhouse doors and got a hug from one of the guards to when he stepped out of the dugout after he belted a three-run home run to give the 42,848 fans at Busch Stadium a curtain call, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007 will always be Ankiel's night.

"You almost can't put it into words," Ankiel said. "I couldn't have written that any better."

The night started for Ankiel with a lengthy standing ovation from the Cardinals faithful, before he stepped into the batter's box for his first Major League at-bat since 2004 in the first inning.

"I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do," Ankiel said. "It's kind of awkward, but it felt great."

It turned out Ankiel's at-bat wasn't that eventful. The right fielder took a pitch, and then popped out to the shortstop.

It didn't matter.

He still got ovations throughout the rest of the night, every time he came up to the plate and every time he slowly jogged to right field to take his position.

But, in the seventh inning, it all changed for the 28-year-old. It went from being an exciting night to a night that Ankiel will surely never forget.

Sporting his new No. 24 on the back of home white jersey, Ankiel walked to the plate for his final at-bat in the seventh.

With two men on and two out, Ankiel showed some patience and took a couple of pitches before getting the count to 2-1.

Padres reliever Doug Brocail then hung a curveball that Ankiel hammered 384 feet over the right-field wall for a three run blast.

Welcome back Mr. Ankiel.

Ankiel then gave a small fist pump as he rounded first base and got a high five from first base coach Dave McKay.

In the dugout, his manager, Tony La Russa was just plain giddy. The manager, who has been the leader of the Cardinals since 1996, raised both of his hands well above his head and exchanged a high five with catcher Yadier Molina, all the while boasting a smile that rivaled Ankiel's postgame grin.

"Short of winning the World Series, that's the happiest I've seen our club," La Russa said. "He's such a special young man. What a moment. This guy has shown so much character."

Asked after the game to describe what it felt like rounding the bases, Ankiel struggled to put it into words.

"I don't think I had any [feeling]. I felt like I was floating," Ankiel said.

What made it even more special for all of Ankiel's teammates and Cardinal nation, was the fact that Ankiel's homer was a timely one too.

Leading just 1-0 in the seventh, the Cards tacked on one run, before Ankiel stepped in and broke the game open to secure a win for the Cards and starting pitcher Joel Pineiro.

Pineiro's dazzling performance -- seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and no walks -- will surely be forgotten, as the night clearly belonged to No. 24, and that was fine with Pineiro.

"It's great for the team, great for him. It's just amazing. I don't know him well, but, from being on the outside, it's a great story," Pineiro said. "It's amazing for him to come back like this. It doesn't get any better."

Ankiel said it feels like his shortcomings as a big-league pitcher seven years ago are "ancient history" and he's eager and ready to start his new career as a hitter.

Scratch that, a power hitter.

In the end, what Ankiel did on Thursday night is what he's been doing all season at Triple-A Memphis. There, as has now been well documented, Ankiel slugged 32 homers in 102 games and drove in 89 runs.

But, just like the great ones, Ankiel had a few nerves before the game on Thursday and he wasn't shy to admit it.

"I think you're always wondering how you're going to do," Ankiel said. "To end the night like that was special. You always dream of that. It just feels really good, I'm pumped."

With the win, the Cards took three of four from the Padres, who came into the series 10 games above .500 and again find themselves just 5 1/2 games out of first place.

That's right, first place.

Despite still being six games under .500, the Cards now find themselves right in the middle of a heated division race and will now welcome the Dodgers to town for a three-game series.

"It will be no problem getting ready to play these games," La Russa said. "I just hope we're good enough."

One thing is for sure, Thursday night, Rick Ankiel was good enough.