By Rob Rains
It had been about 24 hours since Yadier Molina left Busch Stadium following a loss that put the Cardinals on the brink of elimination.
It took a while for him to put Sunday night’s events out of his mind, knowing the Cardinals had been one out away from a win, and shift his focus toward Monday. He knew what was a stake, and knowing one other very important fact.
He wasn’t ready for the season to end. So he did something about it – twice.
With the Cardinals trailing the Braves 4-3 in the eighth, four outs away from going home for the winter, Molina lofted a ball just over the outstretched glove of first baseman Freddie Freeman. The hit drove in Paul Goldschmidt, who had been on second following his second double of the game.
After guiding Carlos Martinez through a ninth inning that included a leadoff double, Molina came up again in the 10th, this time with Kolten Wong on third following a leadoff double. Swinging on the first pitch, as he had done in the eighth, he lofted a fly ball to left deep enough to bring Wong home with the winning run in a 5-4 game that sent the Cardinals back to Atlanta for Wednesday’s decisive game five of the Division Series.
It was the third walk-off postseason win in franchise history when the Cardinals were facing elimination. Molina was there for the other two as well – the home run by Jim Edmonds in game six of the 2004 NLCS and David Freese’s homer in game six of the 2011 World Series.
Molina has been at the center of almost all of the Cardinals’ biggest moments the last 15 years. That 2004 season was the same year that current manager Mike Shildt joined the organization as a scout, and it didn’t take him long, even from that vantage point, to start to appreciate Molina’s greatness.
He has had a much closer look the last couple of seasons and the view has only increased the respect and admiration he has for Molina.
“If he needs to just get a ball in right field, he can do it,” Shildt said. “If he needs to work on getting the ball in the air, he can do it.”
Molina said that in the eighth, all he was trying to do was get contact on the ball. “I was lucky enough to find a hole,” he said. In the 10th, all he needed was a deep enough fly ball to score Wong.
“We’ve got the heart and we know we’ve got the talent to come back anytime. I’m glad we did it tonight. … I’ve been part of many games like that. You’ve got to keep calm and concentrate and play the game the right way. If you do that you’re going to be in good shape.
“I like those moments. I don’t know what it is but my concentration level is up there.”
Matt Carpenter has seen Molina have those kinds of moments time and time again.
“Some guys just thrive in the big moments, under pressure, and Yadi is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Carpenter said. “There was no question when that situation came up he was going to find a way do it. We’re pretty confident in that guy in that spot and he came through in a big way.”
Marcell Ozuna, who hit two homers in his first two at-bats to temporarily give the Cardinals a lead, has only had a close view of Molina for the last two seasons. It’s been long enough for him to learn to never count him out.
“He’s been doing this for a lot of years,” Ozuna said.
“I don’t get surprised at him because he knows how to do it.”
Goldschmidt, who also homered on Monday, has quickly joined the Molina fan club in his first season with the Cardinals.
“It’s not an accident, the success that he has,” Goldschmidt said. “He works really hard at it. It doesn’t go unnoticed. And it’s impressive.”
The most impressive moment that Shildt recalled after Monday’s win about Molina occurred in a game earlier this season. It was a moment Shildt said he expects to still be talking about when he is 80 years old.
“The most impressive thing I’ve ever seen almost on the field, a couple of them are by Yadi,” Shildt said. “This one in particular was amazing to me.
“We had first and third, and went to a hit and run, one out, similar to tonight. … The runner at first missed the sign, so he doesn’t run. Yadi, as the ball is coming, major league pitcher, recognizes (it). Mid-flight, changes his approach and hits a fly ball in the middle of the pitch. It takes four-hundredths of a second to get home, and that was the game.
“After the game, I was like, ‘Did you really change your swingf’ He goes, ‘Yeah, the guy wasn’t running so I needed to get a ball in the air for a sac fly.’
“He’s a pretty amazing individual.”
Before he left Busch Stadium Monday night, in a much better mood than the night before, Molina admitted he didn’t want the season to end on Monday – with one additional footnote: He doesn’t want it to end on Wednesday, either.
Here is how Monday’s game broke down:
At the plate: The Cardinals jumped to a 2-0 lead on the first-inning homers by Goldschmidt and Ozuna, the first time in the team’s history they hit two homers in the first inning of a postseason game … Ozuna became the first Cardinal since Carlos Beltran in 2012 to hit two homers in a postseason game when he went deep again the fourth to make it a 3-1 game … Until Molina’s hit in the eighth, the Cardinals not named Goldschmidt or Ozuna had been a combined 1-of-21 in the game, the lone hit a double by Tommy Edman in the second.
On the mound: Starter Dakota Hudson allowed just one run through the first four innings but got in trouble in the fifth. He could not pitch around a double off the third base bag by Dansby Swanson, a passed ball, and a fielding error by Carpenter, leading to a two-run homer by Ozzie Albies. All three of the runs were unearned … The Cardinals got out of bases-loaded jams in the sixth, on a John Brebbia strikeout of Adam Duvall, and in the seventh, when Andrew Miller retired Rafeael Ortega on a fly to left … Ryan Helsley struck out the side in the eighth and after Martinez got through the ninth, Miles Mikolas made his first relief appearance since 2013, working a 1-2-3 10th.
Key stat: Ozuna has had two hits in each of the four games in the series, the first Cardinal to do that in the same postseason since Edmonds in 2000. The only player in franchise history to have two or more hits in five consecutive postseason games was Pepper Martin in the 1931 World Series. Ozuna is 8-of-17 in the series, a .471 average.
Worth noting: It was the ninth walk-off win in the Cardinals’ postseason history. It was their first extra-inning win in the postseason since a 13-inning win over the Dodgers in game one of the 2013 NLCS … It was the fifth time the Cardinals have trailed a Division Series two games to one. They have now won game four on four of those five occasions, and in two of the previous three went on to win the series in game five – in 2013 against the Pirates and 2011 against the Phillies.
Looking ahead: Jack Flaherty will get the start for the Cardinals in game five on Wednesday in Atlanta in a rematch with the Braves’ Mike Foltynewicz from game two, when the Braves won 3-0.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports