The St. Louis Cardinals won 90 games this year, securing the National League Central crown for the second consecutive season and advancing to the National League Championship Series for an absurd fourth consecutive time. But if you've watched this team every day since April, you know that this year has been different.
Coming into the season, many Cardinals fans, myself included, felt this could be the best Cardinals team since the famed MV3 team of 2004, which won 105 games behind otherworldly seasons from Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. While the strength of that team lay in its stars, this current one was all about depth. General manager John Mozeliak's decision not to match the Angels for Albert Pujols three seasons ago continued to pay dividends, as the Cardinals were able to address their most gaping weakness -- shortstop -- with Jhonny Peralta, while merely tinkering elsewhere. The Cardinals appeared to have no holes: Eight rotation candidates for five spots, five outfielders for three positions, two major league options at second base, even a potential platoon split at first. Mozeliak had merged the Cardinals burgeoning farm system with big-league ready talent to create a self-sustaining machine: The Cardinals could (and did) face a cornucopia of injuries and survived them all, because of what he built.
Except for one injury. One guy they couldn't replace.
Last night, in the sixth inning of an epic, all-encompassing NLCS Game 2, Yadier Molina hit into a double play in the sixth inning and never left the batter's box. His injury was described as a "strained oblique," and it is possible he will miss the rest of this series and, potentially, a World Series. It's a devastating injury. But the Cardinals have been here before. Because for all the reasons the Cardinals didn't have that 2004-like dominant season their fans had been expecting -- rotation injuries, poor hitting with runners in scoring position early on, a power dropoff, Allen Craig -- one of the major ones is that they haven't had Yadier Molina all season, not really.
Yadier Molina missed 40 games in July and August after tearing a ligament in his thumb, but if you were watching this team before that, you knew you hadn't seen vintage Yadi since last year. Yadi was just never comfortable this season. After his breakthrough 2013 season -- in which he was third in MVP voting and arguably deserved to be higher -- every game for Yadi seemed a struggle in the early going. His offense didn't fall off a cliff, but you saw him pressing from the first week. You even noticed in his defense: His arm was as dominant as ever, but he was sloppier behind the plate than in recent years, notching as many passed balls (three) and allowing as many wild pitches (22) as he did in 2013 in 24 fewer games. And he was visibly frustrated for the first three months, throwing the bat down after missed opportunities and having generally worse body language. (If you'll forgive my brief foray into this sort of idiocy.) Yadi was still an above average catcher for the first half of the season, but he wasn't Yadi, something that he seemed even more keenly aware of than the rest of us. It was just a frustrating year for him. Those happen sometimes, even to the best of them.
And that was before the thumb injury. When he returned from that -- two weeks earlier than was the initial diagnosis -- he had lost all power at the plate and hit only .250 in September. The thumb was clearly still bothering him, but the Cardinals, and their fans, weren't going to complain: Sixty percent Yadi is better than 100 percent Tony Cruz or A.J. Pierzynski. But again: He wasn't Yadi, and if the Cardinals have been able to count on one thing over the last 10 years of crazy postseason runs, it has been Yadier Molina. (With his second-inning hit last night, he passed Albert Pujols as the Cardinals' all-time postseason hit leaders with 89. In fact, Yadier is now tied with David Justice for ninth all-time in postseason hits, only one behind Pujols, who had a few with the Angels last week). This has been his worst season, by far, since his bat exploded as a serious force in 2011.
Which is, I'd argue, one of the main reasons the Cardinals only won 90 games this season rather than the 105 their fans thought they might. It is a measure of what Mozeliak and company have built that you can have a down year from your perennial MVP candidate and still win your division and reach the NLCS. Not many teams can say that.
Even in the wake of Kolten Wong's thrilling walkoff home run last night, there is much doom and gloom in St. Louis about Molina's oblique -- he's not even traveling with the team to San Francisco. And without question, losing Molina is a tough blow. But it is not fatal. The Cardinals, fortuitously, added Pierzynski to the NLCS roster, which means they can use him in this series without having to eliminate Yadi from the potential World Series roster. (If the Cardinals were to advance to face, say, the Royals, Yadi's ability to extinguish the running game could be pivotal in that series.) For my money, I'd play Pierzynski more than Cruz; his bat is enough of an improvement over Cruz's that it makes up for any defensive deficiencies. But the oblique injury hasn't cost the Cardinals Peak Yadier Molina: It cost them 2014 Yadier Molina. Those have been two different people since April.
Molina's loss hurts the Cardinals, obviously. But the Cardinals can win this series without him. In many ways, they've been doing it all year. The Cardinals have always said that Molina is irreplaceable; this whole season has been about showing why that isn't true. You always need him. But you also always have to keep playing. And sometimes you keep winning.
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