The 35-foot walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box at Busch Stadium has become habitual to Albert Pujols. He has made it more than 2,000 times throughout his career (4,000 if you count the old place). But something about it felt different on Sept. 2, when he was announced as a seventh-inning pinch-hitter in an otherwise nondescript game against the fading Chicago Cubs. The air was a little more crisp, the atmosphere increasingly more tense. October was approaching, but it seemed as if the entire city was already there in spirit, anticipating what was on the horizon. Eleven years had passed since Pujols last experienced the allure of postseason baseball in St. Louis, but suddenly it was all familiar again. In that moment, it almost felt as if he never left.

"That night got to me," Pujols said. "It hit me. The noise -- it was different."

The finale of Pujols' 22-year, Hall of Fame-worthy baseball career has often felt like a lavish dream. He returned to the place where he became an icon, reached the most distinguished of milestones and, at 42, became a major contributor on a division champion, playing at levels that no longer seemed attainable. As he languished through the better part of the last decade with the Los Angeles Angels, it often seemed as if an entire generation would grow up without ever truly experiencing Pujols' greatness. And then there it was, one final hint of it at the very end. "A blessing," Pujols called it. But the real prize awaits.

The St. Louis Cardinals begin their march through the postseason on Friday, hosting the Philadelphia Phillies in a best-of-three wild-card series. Pujols has spent the 2022 season driven largely by the prospect of hoisting the World Series trophy as a Cardinal for a third and final time, retiring alongside his beloved friend Yadier Molina with ski goggles over their eyes and champagne bottles in their hands. But the opportunity is just as important as the reward. Regardless of what happens, Pujols believes he has already won.

"This is how I want my career to end -- with the fans, with the city, in the postseason," Pujols told ESPN on a recent morning in San Diego. "Man, I wouldn't change a thing."

Pujol's final season feels even more incredible when you consider its unlikelihood.

In 2021, Pujols basically rebranded himself in a span of five months, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers around the middle of May -- days after the Angels released him -- and establishing himself as a clubhouse mentor and a lefty masher. Thriving on an elite, decorated Dodgers team and playing meaningful, high-intensity games in front of a rabid fan base allowed Pujols to tap back into an energy that was often lacking as he wasted away on Angels teams that continually went nowhere. But by the following spring, he was exhausted.

He had played deep into October for the first time in 10 years, then spent a stint in the Dominican Republic playing winter ball, making good on a promise to the fans of his home country. When February came and went, and the owners and players still hadn't come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, Pujols wasn't certain he'd ever play again. Then the lockout was lifted on March 10, a universal designated hitter was agreed to as part of it, and Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, implored him to come back.