By Rob Rains
Dylan Carlson was six days shy of his sixth birthday when 22-year-old Yadier Molina played the first postseason game of his career with the Cardinals on Oct. 17, 2004.
On that day, neither had any reason to think that 16 years later, their paths would find them together on Wednesday in San Diego – for the first postseason game of Carlson’s career and game 99 in what will one day be a Hall of Fame career for Molina.
Molina’s postseason success has been well documented, and he added to his resume with three hits, two runs and an RBI as the Cardinals earned a 7-4 win in game one of the wild-card round series over the Padres
It was his single that drove in Carlson, who had doubled in his first postseason at-bat, to help the Cardinals jump out to a 4-0 lead just 13 pitches into the game.
The double was the first of two hits for Carlson, who also walked twice and scored two runs in joining an exclusive club that previously only had two members – players who started a postseason game hitting cleanup for the Cardinals before their 22nd birthday.
The only two previous players to do that were Stan Musial, the greatest player in franchise history, who did it in the 1942 World Series, and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, who hit there for five games in the 2001 postseason.
Carlson’s double followed a two-run homer by Paul Goldschmidt, his first home run since Sept. 12, as the Cardinals scored as many runs in the span of seven batters as they had in the first inning of their last 26 games of the regular season combined.
“He’s been taking good at-bats and his demeanor is such that he’s not going to make it any bigger than it is,” manager Mike Shildt said of Carlson, who hit cleanup for the first time for the Cardinals in the final regular-season game on Sunday. “He’s an even-keel guy. Really it’s about lining up our consistent at-bats in order.”
Carlson admitted that he had a little trouble getting to sleep on Tuesday night thinking about the upcoming game, but his nerves didn’t show up on the field.
“There was definitely a lot of excitement,” Carlson said. “A great group of veteran guys that keep me level. Following their lead and being able to be around them is definitely an advantage for me.”
Carlson followed up his first-inning double with a single in the third, went to third on a double by Molina and scored on a single from Paul DeJong, who reached base five times with two hits, two walks and getting hit by a pitch. Carlson also delivered a highlight-reel defensive play with a diving catch in left field against Manny Machado leading off the seventh.
“He’s just going to go play and enjoy the game,” Shildt said. “It’s an opportunity, it’s not a threat. Go play and enjoy what you do. It’s playoff baseball, go and be you and let your ability play. Trust yourself. It’s good to be able to see him do that at a young age.”
Molina, no longer young, has been doing that for 16 years now.
“I’m smiling under this mask, all I can do is shake my head,” Goldschmidt said in response to a question about Molina. “I just laugh. He impresses you every day; he’s passing someone on some all-time list. It’s just incredible. It’s not on accident. He studies as much as anyone, he’s in the weight room. He shows up early in spring training and is doing catching drills before guys are even dressed. There’s a mental willpower and he puts the work in.”
Maybe in 16 years, it will be Carlson playing in his 99th career postseason game, and he can talk about what it was like to play with Molina as he made his postseason debut. Molina’s fingerprints were all over Wednesday’s game.
“That’s what he does,” Shildt said. “I thought he was tremendous. He’s a great player. He finds a lot of ways to contribute and help you win games. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Matt Carpenter had an RBI in both the first and third innings with a sacrifice fly and a single as the Cardinals built a 6-2 lead, then were able to get key outs from the bullpen to secure the victory.
With the Cardinals leading 6-4, and two runners on base, Giovanny Gallegos struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. to end the sixth, then with two runners on base, with Tatis again representing the go-ahead run, Alex Reyes retired him on a ground ball to short to end the eighth.
Reyes also was playing the first postseason game of his career. His first pitch to Tatis was a called strike at 98 miles per hour. He finished off the game by retiring the side in the ninth, getting the final out on a catch at the wall by Harrison Bader on a 100 miles per hour fastball to Will Myers.
Except for that catch, Bader had a tough day, becoming only the third player in major-league history to strike out five times in a postseason game. The last to do it was Reggie Sanders while playing for the Reds in 1995.
The Cardinals will send Adam Wainwright to the mound for game two on Thursday night with a chance to close out the Padres and move on the Division Series next week. It was Wainwright who ended the Padres’ last playoff appearance, getting the final out as the Cardinals’ closer in the 2006 Division Series.
“Second game, you’ve got a chance to close it out,” Wainwright said. “I like the challenge. I appreciate the opportunity, and I’ll be ready.”
NOTES: The Padres top two starters, Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, were left off their roster for this round because of arm issues. Each had to come out of their final starts last week because of an injury … Zach Davies, the former Brewers pitcher, will start game two on Thursday night with a starter for game three, if necessary, still to be determined … The Cardinals elected to go with 13 pitchers on their roster, which opened up spots for catcher Andrew Knizner and outfielder Austin Dean. Rookies Johan Oviedo and Kodi Whitley got the final two spots in the bullpen ahead of fellow rookies Jake Woodford and Seth Elledge … Carlos Martinez has returned to his home in the Dominican Republic as he recovers from a strained oblique and John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, confirmed Wednesday that he will not pitch again this season … The players on the Cardinals’ taxi squad can be on the field for pre-game workouts but then have to watch the game from a spot in the stands.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains and read his stories @STLSportsPage.com for complete Cardinals postseason coverage
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports