The whacked-out NL Central gets nuttier by the day.
When all of the ballpark lights were dimmed last Thursday, the first-place Cubs had a five-game lead over the Cardinals and the Brewers with 22 games remaining. Nothing was guaranteed, of course. But the Cubs appeared to be safely headed for home.
And then the Brewers went to Chicago, occupied Wrigley Field, and swept three games from the Cubs. This, coming after the Crew had been chased out of Cincinnati by the Reds, who won all three games at The Great American Ball Park.
To the south, the Cardinals were busy smacking the Pirates around for three consecutive wins at Busch Stadium.
And just like that …
The Cubs’ protective layer above the Cards and Brewers had evaporated down to two games.
Amid the chaos, the Cardinals found the calm center in the presence of catcher Yadier Molina.
Extending his second-half upsurge, Molina left the Pirates in smithereens by splashing five hits in 11 at-bats, launching two cannonball homers, and relentlessly delivering seven runs batted in.
This goes against the norm. Catchers are not indestructible. They should not be getting stronger and more energized as the innings pile up. An aging catcher-warrior should be tucked into his armor, fending off the barrage of foul tips and errant fastballs that smash into his knees … just trying to hang in for a while longer.
Not this catcher.
Not this special man.
Molina continues to defy age, damage and the anticipated steep decline.
And because of his recharged offensive performance and resolute leadership in guiding a remodeled pitching staff, the Cardinals are trying like hell to defy the Cubs and predictions of doom.
At the age of 35, and with 15,041 innings of big-league catching — postseason included — pounding his physical being, Molina should be hunched over and creaky … sore in so many spots that you’d have to dunk him in an ice bath to cover everything. He should be 205 pounds of bruises and mangled claws.
Instead, Molina is going the other way.
He’s getting better instead of wilting. He refuses to act his age. His determination is bottomless. His toughness is indomitable. He’s 35 going on 25.
In the first half of the season, Molina slugged .411 with a .714 OPS. He homered every 31.3 at-bats. His park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) came in at 18 percent below league average. He ranked 21st among MLB catchers with 0.7 WAR. He cut down base stealers at a rate of 30 percent.
But since the All-Star break, Molina has a .497 slugging percentage with an .834 OPS. His park-adjusted offense is 17 percent above league average. He’s homered every 22.3 at-bats. And he leads starting NL catchers with 1.4 WAR, second in the majors to the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez (2.0). Molina’s second-half caught-stealing rate is just under 42 percent.
And this across-the-board performance upturn is happening as Molina leads all MLB catchers in games started (121) and innings (1,040) this season. For the year, Molina leads NL catchers with 72 RBIs, leads with 57 runs scored, is second in extra-base hits, ranks third with 17 homers, and is fourth in slugging and OPS. Among NL catchers that have started at least 100 games, Molina has the best throw-out rate at 35.5 percent.
What’s the elixir?
It’s just the classic Molina ethos.
“Hard work,” Molina said. “Competing hard. Doing what I can to help my team.”
A while back, when I asked Molina to explain the key to his success, he talked about honoring his craft by putting in the work that gives him an edge … like watching video of opposing hitters on his iPad as he leaned back in bed at home after a long night of catching.
“I don’t sleep that well, so whenever I’m in bed I like to study there too if I have to,” Molina said. “It’s all about the work. There are no shortcuts. I care. I care about winning. I care about my pitchers. I care about my team. So if I care, I need to work. So that means go to the video, and study, and be prepared.”
But he should be catching less, right? We’ve been saying that for a long time. But since the start of the 2015 season, Molina has started 394 games behind the plate … 29 more than any other MLB catcher. And he’s logged another 3,408 innings … 262 more than any catcher.
Despite all of this hard labor at baseball’s most physically debilitating position, Molina will challenge his personal best for 80 RBIs in a season (2013.) With 19 games remaining, he’s within range of his best home-run season, 22 back in 2012. If his current slugging percentage holds, it will be Molina’s finest SLG since 2013.
And then there’s Molina’s famous baseball intellect.
Basically he’s the Cardinals’ brain.
Which goes a long way in explaining why the Cardinals’ have the third-lowest ERA (3.61) in the majors since Molina took over as the starting catcher in 2005. With Molina as their catcher the Cardinals have the NL’s best regular-season winning percentage (.551) and lead the majors in postseason wins.
The young and talented Carson Kelly will be this team’s catcher one day … but he’s on hold for now. Since his promotion on July 21, Kelly has started only seven games. Molina had started 84 percent of the Cardinals’ games before Kelly was added as the No. 2 catcher. And since Kelly’s arrival in St. Louis some 48 games ago … you probably know where I am going with this …
Molina has started 85.4 percent of the time.
Molina is playing more … not less.
The Molina body hasn’t given in.
The indefatigable Molina spirit won’t allow that to happen.
Don’t call Molina a golden oldie.
He isn’t old. He’s just golden.
Thanks for reading …