ST. LOUIS -- From the sea of red that has become a common backdrop in October to the blackout conditions surrounding the return of postseason glory to a city starving for it, this was a National League Division Series with color and ear-splitting passion to spare.
From the beauty of the Gateway Arch beyond the outfield fence at Busch Stadium to the riverside view of a bridge named after one of the game's all-time heroes at PNC Park, the Cardinals and Pirates delivered the drama on two of the game's prettiest stages.
And in the end, this proved to be a matchup of NL Central powers who probably ought to get used to seeing each other this time of year.
When the Cards ended the Bucs' season with a 6-1 victory in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night, two teams walked away with a mutual respect for each other that goes as deep as a Pedro Alvarez homer and is as strong as Adam Wainwright's resolve.
"We tip our hat to the Cardinals," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said after Wednesday's game. "I think this rivalry has turned into something that baseball can be proud of. It's become a rivalry for all the right reasons: Professional respect, the way the game is played, the effort. They beat a very good team."
The Cardinals couldn't agree more. After 24 meetings with the Pirates, split right down the middle at 12 wins apiece, the Cards know there's a team in Pittsburgh they'll have to contend with for years to come in their division -- and very likely in October.
After all, this wasn't the Pirates team of a decade ago. This wasn't even the Bucs team of the last couple of years, when it faded down the stretch and fell short of the thrill of participating in the postseason.
This is a Pirates team that belonged in the postseason just as much as the Cardinals.
"They had a tremendous year, and you could tell that over the last two years that they were growing closer and closer to having success, and they became a very dangerous team over there, one that they certainly have a lot to be proud of," Cards general manager John Mozeliak said. "As far as taking that next step, they're there.
"This was not an easy series by any means, and it was a grinding season. To watch what they've done, they've been able to optimize their Drafts, and they're seeing that coming to fruition."
With their combination of core veterans and rookies who stepped into the spotlight with aplomb, the Cardinals got the better of the Pirates this time, advancing to the NL Championship Series for the third consecutive year -- matching the feat St. Louis accomplished in 2004-06.
But the Bucs walked out of Busch Stadium knowing that they'd taken a huge step forward in 2013, even if they didn't take it as far as they would have liked.
"We definitely opened the eyes of a lot of people this year," All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen said.
"They have a lot of postseason experience on their side, they have a lot of World Series winners," second baseman Neil Walker said, "and when you go toe to toe with them and duke them out for five games, I think there's something to be proud of as a team."
As the Cards move on to meet the Dodgers, and the Pirates move toward the offseason and a future that's a lot brighter than it was a year ago, a series that captured the essence of a tight NL Central race is complete.
It was a series destined to go the distance -- and a matchup that portends interesting things for the future.
"The series was a great experience," Hurdle said. "The intensity, both parks, two historic organizations, tradition rich. Obviously, this club here, the St. Louis Cardinals organization, have gotten used to this. The sustainability is what separates great organizations."
The Pirates have yet to prove that sustainability, but they certainly proved something to the Cardinals. They made it clear there will be more thrills to come at the foot of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh, and they showed that this year's NL Central champion will have a familiar challenger in the future.
"The Pirates, you have to give credit to that team," said Cards veteran Carlos Beltran. "They really fought, not only in the playoffs but also in the regular season. They showed that they're a good team and they're going to be a good team for a long time."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less