At 4:44 p.m. yesterday the St. Louis Cardinals' score was posted as final, and the New York Mets' season ended -- one day before the end of the season.

And the nearly 47,000 in Shea Stadium stood and cheered their Mets.

Confetti came from the upper deck. Blue and white and orange balloons were released from behind the center-field fence.

"For them to acknowledge us that way," Ron Darling said, "was as much a tribute to themselves as to us. I think they understood that we played our guts out."

The game drew 45,404, giving the Mets a season attendance of 2,719,547, surpassing the team and New York City mark of 2,697,479, set in 1970.

"Next year. Next year," Mets Manager Davey Johnson said. "They've got to get that in their minds. We're just going to figure next year is our year."

The Mets were eliminated from the National League East, losing by 8-3 to the Montreal Expos while the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Chicago Cubs, 7-1.

The Mets, who have one more with the Expos, will finish second in the division for the second straight year. They had a 90-72 record last year to finish 6 1/2 games behind Chicago. They have won 98 games this year.

Darling (16-6), who worked six innings in the loss, said it was difficult to believe the Mets had a chance to finish the season with 99 victories and yet not win the division -- and for the second straight time to a team getting outstanding performances from several players.

"We'll be back," Darling said. "They know that. But we were just joking in the shower. We hope that the Pirates don't win 120 games next season.

"We were talking about how long it seems since spring training. We played our guts out and came up short. You have to give credit to the Cards. They were just a little bit better. They won, what, their 101st game today? It's pretty hard to compete with that."

Andre Dawson homered and drove in four runs, and rookie right-hander Floyd Youmans got the victory in six innings' work for the Expos, who ended a three-game losing streak.

"I was very nervous before the game," said Youmans, who was traded to Montreal along with Hubie Brooks and two others for Gary Carter. " . . . I wanted them to think about what they could've done if I was pitching for them this year."

Youmans (4-3) gave up one run on five hits, walked four and struck out three in six innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. Jeff Reardon, despite giving up Darryl Strawberry's 29th home run in the eighth, earned his 40th save.

Tim Raines opened the game with a single and Dawson hit his 23rd homer. Hubie Brooks made it 3-0 in the third with his 13th homer, a two-out shot that cleared the left-field bleachers.

The Mets scored one run and left the bases loaded in the fourth. Strawberry singled and took third on a hit-and-run single by Danny Heep. Vance Law dropped Howard Johnson's bouncer for an error as he nearly collided with Heep advancing to second. Strawberry scored on the play. Darling walked on five pitches to load the bases, but Youmans struck out Wilson and Wally Backman grounded to first.

Darling gave up seven hits and struck out three without issuing a walk in his six innings. The Expos scored their final four runs off reliever Wes Garner in the ninth.

"I think if we could have avoided all the injuries this year, we probably would be on top of the division right now," Strawberry said. "But that's part of baseball. You run across injuries."