ST. LOUIS -- The irreplaceable Cardinal talked about not contributing, about aching to help his team navigate toward a second straight World Series. His bat had picked an awful time to deposit ball after ball right where a glove happened to be. He talked to his big brother, who told him just to keep doing the thing that makes him irreplaceable. The hitting part? Forget about it, the big brother said.
Forget it? Who can take a .315 batting average into the playoffs, reach Game 4 of the NLCS with a .152 postseason average, even mitigated somewhat by five walks for a .282 on-base percentage, and not be bothered? Yadier Molina was bothered, frustrated, even a little angry. When he got a hit near the end of the Cardinals’ loss in Game 2 on Monday night, he slammed his bat to the ground.
He was not expressing grand relief. That was disgust in motion.
“[I] got two opportunities in my first two at-bats and with somebody on base, and didn’t get the hit,” Molina said. “Then in the ninth inning, with nobody on, you get the hit, you ask yourself why you didn’t do it the first time or the second time. It makes you feel mad.”
He seemed much happier Thursday night, punching and stabbing the air after he collected two hits and drove in a pair of runs.
“Yeah, finally,” he said after after an 8-1 win in Game 4, prompting little laughs from the reporters around him. Then he got to the part about not contributing, and guffaws seemed appropriate. Silence followed. No one got the joke, not even Molina.
Somewhere, brother Bengie was rolling his eyes. “I told him, ‘Win a game with your catching,’” the eldest member of catching's First Family had told Andrew Baggarly of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area a few days earlier. “‘If you hit three bloopers and go 3-for-4, does that make you a great hitter? No. So don’t worry about what the numbers look like. Just be positive.’”
Win with your catching. To Yadier Molina, that must sound like: “Succeed by breathing.”
No doubt, he has refined his craft, put in more work than replaceable employees can comprehend. It just doesn't look that way.
Giants catcher Buster Posey turned vaguely poetic the other day, when he tried to describe Molina's work behind the plate.
“The first thing I always see is how quiet he is as far as his setup. He’s very still,” Posey said. “Still's not even the right word. But he looks so relaxed and I think he steals a lot of pitches for his pitchers, and I think that goes unnoticed a lot of times for catchers. And the job he does framing pitches is second to none.”
Imagine the difficulty of setting up gracefully in that job, to become almost feline in a full squat with of plastic and a small mattress strapped to your body. Feline grace is the province of center fielders and shortstops. And Yadier Molina.
Baseball may be entering a new golden age for catchers, matching the early 1950s, when Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra won three MVP awards apiece. In 2009, Joe Mauer became only the second catcher in 33 years to win the award.
Ten catchers have combined for 15 MVP awards, Campanella and Berra tripling up and Johnny Bench doubling in the ’70s.
This season, Posey, Mauer and Molina all had batting averages that placed them in the top 10 in the majors. Posey appears to be the MVP favorite in the National League, but Molina should draw a lot of votes, as well.
The Gold Glove, however, will go to Molina, as it has the last four years. No one can challenge him. The Giants haven't even bothered to attempt a stolen base in the series. Why would they? Molina's arm will make them pay.
His skills go beyond that, though. After Adam Wainwright compensated for his dreadful start in Washington a week ago by holding the Giants to a single run, he said he had been antsy to get back on the mound and redeem himself. Someone asked Molina how impatient Wainwright seemed to him.
“No more than me, I guarantee you,” he said. “I was expecting this game for him.”
Taking ownership of the pitching staff’s performance practically defines a great catcher. It's what makes Molina so valuable to his team.
The Next Man Up theory of team sports finds its supreme exemplar in the St. Louis Cardinals. Carlos Beltran, now the all-time leader in postseason slugging percentage (.830), can disappear with a bum knee, and Matt Carpenter will move in seamlessly. Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa can leave, and … well, you know. It's all understood now. The Cardinals can fill almost any gap. They can thrive with the bottom of the order causing all the damage. They can send wave after wave of overpowering relievers at a team.
Without Molina, though, it all crumbles. He truly could forget about the need to hit. He won't, but he could. He is the irreplaceable Cardinal.