Yadier Molina Shows the World: He’s Still Very Special

Not so fast, Carson Kelly.

Pardon my overreaction but we might want to slow down a little in our hurry to tab Kelly as the Cardinals’ next starting catcher, the successor to Yadier Molina, perhaps as soon as 2017.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina

Did you stay up Tuesday night to watch the World Baseball Classic matchup between underdog Puerto Rico and defending WBC champion Dominican Republic?

In a compelling (if slow) game, Puerto Rico remained unbeaten (4-0) in WBC play with a 3-1 victory over starting pitcher Carlos Martinez and the DR.

I grinded it out. I usually go to bed early because of my job and 3:30 a.m. wakeup time, but who can sleep when Molina is joyfully putting on a classic performance that showcased every skill that makes him the greatest catcher of his generation?

I can’t do better than the headline at MLB.com, which put it this way:

WBC: World’s Best Catcher

“As Yadier Molina goes, the team goes,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez told reporters, post-game in San Diego.

“We’ve been watching that for years in the big leagues and with Team Puerto Rico. But definitely he’s the heart of the team.”

The Bat: Molina singled off his teammate, Martinez, for an RBI single in the bottom of the first to give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead. There was the sixth-inning solo homer (video below) that made it 3-1, with Molina providing extra security for his team’s thin 2-1 lead. In the first four WBC games Molina is batting .500 with two homers and a 1.750 OPS.

The Arm: To end the eighth inning Molina threw out the large Nelson Cruz (video below), who inexplicably tried to steal second base. Granted, the shambling Cruz isn’t exactly Rickey Henderson on the bases. But with an excellent 1.87 pop time, and his throw clocked at 83.5 mph on the radar, Molina probably would have thrown out Henderson — or the vintage Lou Brock. Molina’s throw was so far ahead of schedule in arriving at the target, his P.R. teammate Javier Baez, flashed the first and only no-look tag we’ve ever seen. Baez was staring directly at Molina — not the runner — as he applied the tag. According to MLB.com, the average pop time for catchers in 2016 was 2.01 seconds.

The Moxie: Molina’s pitch framing was shrewd, savvy and a bit devious. Here’s another word for it: brilliant. Molina was able to finesse his way to called strikes all night — including the called third strike that sealed Puerto Rico’s triumph.

The Yadi Experience was something to behold.

“Well, he’s Molina,” Rodriguez said. “He manages his pitch and the pitching team as a whole. Yadier Molina, he is dominant in this. He had a lot to do with this victory.”

The D.R. dugout was so infuriated by ball-strike calls that went Molina’s way manager Tony Pena got ejected for arguing. Pena later praised Molina’s “mastery.”

Molina may be 34, but he bounced around and cavorted like a 20-year-old on Tuesday night. He loves the tournament. He’s represented Puerto Rico in all four WBCs. His passion overflows. The Cardinals wouldn’t dream of requesting that Molina to skip the WBC. They wouldn’t dare to do that, either.

“They know better,” Molina said. “I will play for my country every time. Every year. And they know. I love to play. I love to be in this situation. I would do it every time.”

This proud and fiercely competitive man refuses to act his age — even after 14,000 innings of MLB catching since 2004, a count that includes his postseason work.

Molina batted .307 with a .360 onbase percentage and .427 slugging percentage and 38 doubles in 2016, pulling out of an offensive decline to deliver his best hitting numbers since 2013.

And of course Molina led the majors in games started (142) and innings caught (1,218) … again.

Molina was overlooked last season. Some people forgot about him, or at least moved him down in the unofficial catcher rankings in their heads. For the first time since 2008 Molina wasn’t named to the NL All-Star team. His incredible run of eight consecutive gold glove awards came to an end, with the trophy going to the Giants’ Buster Posey.

Molina will be 35 on July 13.

You kind of get the idea that Molina is tired of folks constantly pointing that out.

You kind of get the idea that Molina feels slighted.

You kind of get the idea that this is going to be one helluva season for Yadi in 2017.

On an emotional and festive evening in San Diego Molina reminded everyone — devoted fans in St. Louis included — that he’s one of the greatest players in Cardinals’ history. His enduring presence is something to savor and treasure, so let’s make sure to appreciate it while it lasts.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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