St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (5) celebrates with...

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (5) celebrates with Felipe Lopez after the Cardinals' 8-7 victory over the New York Mets in 13 innings. (July 28, 2010) Credit: AP

Give the Mets credit.

Johan Santana did just about everything he could to bury them within the first 19 minutes of play. But his teammates refused to quit, methodically chipping away at the Cardinals’ lead until they were in striking distance.

But in the end, all that fight was for naught.

The promising night unraveled in the top of the 13th when beleaguered reliever Pedro Feliciano (2-6) allowed the go-ahead run on Albert Pujols’ two-out RBI single that gave the Cardinals an 8-7 victory last night in front of 36,009 at Citi Field.

Jerry Manuel chose to pitch to Pujols rather than Matt Holliday despite having an open base. “At least tonight, Holliday was swinging the bat better than Albert,” Manuel said. “It was a tough call. We were playing with fire and we got burned.”

Santana, who entered the game 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA in five July outings, allowed a career-worst 13 hits in 52/3 innings, including six runs on eight hits in the first. It was his shortest outing since May 2 when he gave up 10 runs in 32/3 innings against the Phillies.

But the Mets rallied, turning a blowout into a nail-biter.

Trailing 7-3, Luis Castillo led off the eighth with a single to leftfield before Angel Pagan crushed a 2-and-2 pitch from reliever Mitchell Boggs into the centerfield bullpen to pull the Mets within 7-5. They loaded the bases when David Wright picked up an infield hit, Mike Hessman was hit on the left forearm by a pitch and Josh Thole drew a walk with two outs. That set up Ike Davis, whose pinch-hit single to right scored Wright and Hessman, tying the score at 7.

Manuel said despite the defeat the team’s comeback was encouraging. “It’s tough, but you always feel good when your team is down 6-0 or whatever and they come back and score that many runs late,” he said. “Hopefully that’s indicative that our the offense is coming around and starting to click.”

Coming into the game, Mets starters hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of their last seven starts. That, however, changed last night. Santana allowed a two-run homer to Holliday, a two-run single to opposing pitcher Jaime Garcia and run-scoring hits by Skip Schumaker and Felipe Lopez — all with two outs. At 7:30 — after 38 pitches — Santana’s nightmarish first inning ended with Pujols flying out.

“They were aggressive. They attacked me right away,” Santana said. “They knew I was going to throw strikes. After that inning was over I just tried to regroup.”

Manuel said he never seriously considered removing Santana from the game in the first.

“We would really have been in trouble if we had to make that call early,” he said.

The Mets chipped away at the six-run deficit immediately. Jose Reyes and Pagan walked and scored on Hessman’s double off the leftfield wall. It was the first two RBIs for the 32-year-old, who was called up on Monday.

Santana was pulled after giving up an RBI double to Holliday, which put St. Louis ahead 7-2 with two outs in the sixth inning. He was replaced by Manny Acosta, who struck out Yadier Molina to end the threat.

Wright led off the bottom of the sixth with a single off the leftfield wall, but he unsuccessfully tried to stretch it into a double and was thrown out by Holliday. Carlos Beltran followed by hitting his first home run of the season to make it 7-3.

“We felt we had the potential to win that ballgame,” Beltran said. “I thought we did a great job. We were able to pull ourselves back, we just fell short.”