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Molina is back where he bloomed

Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 3:06 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 7:11 a.m. CDT

NEW YORK — The moments from Game 7 of the 2006 National League championship series between the Cardinals and the New York Mets are captured in photos, posters, and even an etching on a brick outside the ballpark that replaced Shea Stadium. Endy Chavez’s dazzling leap to rob a home run. Jeff Suppan holding the NLCS MVP trophy. Scott Rolen weeping. Carlos Beltran taking. Adam Wainwright triumphant.

The snapshots are so clear that it’s easy to miss the bigger picture.

That game, a teammate said years later, “was all about Yadi.”

That was the night baseball met Yadier Molina.

“The moment, the whole game, those will always be in my heart,” Molina said this past weekend. “If I need it, it’s always in my heart.”

The All-Star Game brings Molina back to Queens as the star of stars, back to the borough of his breakthrough. Entering that rain-soaked series, Molina was the Cardinals’ defense-first catcher, a heralded glove with an uncertain bat who privately made that October a personal quest to prove otherwise. He would not allow his .216 average in the regular season to define him. Instead, Game 7 did. Molina guided MVP Suppan through a treacherous inning. Molina called the sequence of pitches for Wainwright that ended with the curveball that froze Beltran. And Molina drilled the two-run homer in the ninth inning that was the difference between going home and going on to the World Series.

The player who left Shea Stadium that night returns Tuesday to Citi Field, the new Mets’ ballpark, as perhaps the game’s most complete player and one of its most popular.

Molina leads the National League with a .341 average, has widely been picked as the first half MVP by pundits, and received the most fan All-Star votes of any player in the NL. His jersey is the third-highest seller in baseball behind retiring closer Mariano Rivera and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey. His peers and opponents have run out of adjectives.

“He does everything,” Posey said.

“He is as good as it gets on the defensive side,” former MVP and Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. “And now he’s swinging the bat well. He’s one of the best around.”

“He has to be the best in the game, right?” Wainwright said.

“He’s such a dynamic catcher a lot of time people overlook that he’s a great hitter, a clutch hitter,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said Monday as the All-Star festivities began with the Home Run Derby. “To me, it’s his durability and his catching that really set him apart. I love the way he handles the staff. I love Posey. I love (Brian) McCann. But this guy’s the horse.”

Molina, who turned 31 this past week, had a career year last season with a .315 average, a .501 slugging percentage, 22 homers and 76 RBIs. Not once in a single month in 2012 was his slugging percentage lower than his career average. He’s improved upon that this season. With four hits Sunday night at Wrigley Field, Molina raised his average to .341. With teammate Allen Craig’s .333 nipping at his heels, Molina is trying to become the first Cardinal since Albert Pujols to lead the team in hitting for three consecutive seasons.

Molina’s three-run homer Sunday night capped a 10-6 victory during which he had a home run, three runs, four hits and four RBIs.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Molina’s .325 average ranks fourth in baseball behind Miguel Cabrera, Posey and Joey Votto. They have each won an MVP in the previous three seasons. And even baseball’s higher math adores Molina. Molina’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) — a statistic that aims to measure how much a player’s total game adds to his teams win total — was 6.9 in 2012. That’s the 11th-highest ever for a catcher.

That doesn’t begin to measure his value like one late-night flight can.

When he joined several teammates on a private jet to Anaheim, Calif., for the 2010 All-Star Game, it was Molina who stayed quietly on the side and listened to Pujols talk about dressing the part of an All-Star and other suggestions. On the flight from Chicago late Sunday night, it was five-time All-Star Molina and Carlos Beltran who held court, talking baseball for two hours, sharing insights.

“It’s happened fast,” said Wainwright, who was on board. “He’s always had those leadership qualities. It’s just now is the right time to put that forward. We need him to be the Yadier that we’ve come to know. He’s the team leader, the heart and soul of our team. He’s amazing. It’s something that has happened naturally as his game has evolved. He started off as a great-catching, soft-hitting guy and now his game is complete.”

That’s how Molina has come to define his role.

Complete.

He learned it from coach Dave Ricketts, the longtime Cardinals minor-league instructor who is credited with developing generations of catchers and establishing the team’s tradition behind the plate. Cardinals catchers have won 11 of the past 22 Gold Gloves at the position.

“That’s one of the things he approached me about — to be a good leader, to get respect,” Molina said Monday at Citi Field, still wearing his sunglasses as he met the assembled reporters. “Whenever you’re out there catching, you’re like the captain of the team. If you feel down that day, you cannot show that to your team. That’s going to bring down the team. You have to be the leader. It’s all about the game, the whole game. Not only on the field, but in the clubhouse, outside the lines, off the field, in the city. Wherever.”

That about describes Game 7.

Molina kept Suppan calm when Rolen’s error nearly cost the Cardinals the game. He kept Wainwright on task with the bases loaded and the All-Star Beltran at the plate. He switched to a changeup after telling the rookie he was going to call for a fastball. “Trust me,” he pantomimed. And there, on national television, he had the clutch home run that introduced him to October lore.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny listened to that Game 7 on the road as he drove to a farm outside of St. Louis because “deer season was hot” and there was hunting to be done. He got to a TV in time to see Molina’s home run. General manager John Mozeliak, who was at Shea, said that was “the moment in time he seized. It was poignant.” Older brother Bengie Molina was watching the game from his home, pacing. He knew the Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman was going to start with a changeup and talked to the TV, pleading with his brother to be ready.

“Don’t miss it. Don’t miss it,” Bengie recalled. “Be ready. Don’t miss it. And he hit it out. I started crying. Very emotional day.”

Yadier grinned broadly this past weekend at the memory of Game 7 when asked if that game changed anything for him.

“It changed one thing,” he said. “I have a ring.”

A Gold Glove came two years after Game 7 and his first All-Star invitation and MVP vote three years later. And now he takes the stage as arguably the game’s best.

“From a long time ago I knew he was going to special in this league,” Bengie Molina said. “It didn’t have to be 2004. It didn’t have to be there in Game 7. I think over and over and over again he’s proved that’s what he is. It’s not one play. It’s not that one night that says what he is. He’s kept proving it and proving it from that day on.”

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©2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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