The 2006 Cardinals, in my mind, get a bit of a bad rap as “the worst team to ever win the World Series”. Yes, they scuffled down the stretch. Yes, they only won 83 games. Yes, they didn’t clinch the division until the last day. All that said, this was the same team that had won 105 and 100 games the prior two seasons with minimal changes and still had the MV3 core going for it.
One of the changes, at least from the 2004 squad, was that Yadier Molina was the everyday catcher. Technically, Yadi was in his second full year of being the starter, but in 2005 he only played 114 games and for a man who trains to play 174, that’s just not acceptable. Molina played 129 games in 2006, more in line with his career average (when you exclude 2004, when he was called up as an understudy to Mike Matheny).
So Molina and the Cardinals weren’t anywhere close to the favorites to win another World Series. (I do remember looking at the path that October and thinking they might win the pitching matchups to get there, especially with Pedro Martinez hurting for the Mets.) Surprising everyone, the Cards made it to Game 7 against the Mets in their ballpark with the right to move on to the World Series on the line. Little did we know when Joe Buck welcomed us into the game that we would see not only history that night but a legend come into being.
Game 7 was a remarkable game but, because this is #YadiWeek, we really want to just focus on the last inning of it. So, for those of you that don’t remember because you are way too young, the Mets scored in the first on a two-out single by David Wright, but the Cardinals answered with a run in the top of the second when Jim Edmonds singled, Scott Rolen flied out, our hero of the piece Molina singled, putting Edmonds on third, and then Ronnie Belliard pulled the squeeze play bringing in Jimmy Ballgame. So, as we can see, even in this run Molina was vital.
Then nothing happened.
OK, nothing is a bit extreme. There was no scoring as the teams went back and forth. Scott Rolen should have put the Cardinals ahead in the sixth but Endy Chavez brought back his home run ball and used it to start a double play. In the bottom of that inning the Mets loaded the bases with one out but couldn’t score. It was a taut, nail biting game.
Then came the ninth.
Aaron Heilman had taken over for the Mets in the top of the eighth and, save for a two out intentional walk of Albert Pujols, had taken care of the Cardinals without incident. It looked like more of the same when Edmonds struck out to start the inning, but then Rolen singled and the Cards had life. Many may not have thought so, given that Molina was coming up.
There’s no doubt that for 2006 season, Yadier Molina was more of an asset behind the plate than at it. Yadi had hit only .216 for the campaign and his OPS+ was 53, even though he had six homers. Having seen Yadi the year before, though, his strong postseason didn’t surprise me. Even when he struggled overall, he seemed to come up big when the moment required it. He had hit .318 against Houston in the ‘05 NLCS and .308 in the divisional series against the Padres that preceded this NLCS. He was six for 19 leading up to this game and had hit his first postseason home run in Game 4. He wasn’t the slugger Pujols was, of course, but he wasn’t completely helpless.
Heilman soon found that out.
There are players that play a decade and a half and don’t get such a defining moment. It’s fun to watch that fresh-faced young lad, that former incarnation of the grizzled vet we know now, with that smile on his face as he hit the ball, knowing he had just put his team on top.
It would take the bottom of that inning for him to send them to the World Series.
We know the story. We know the young closer, Adam Wainwright (how did both of these guys actually get to where we call them old?) came in to close games like he’d been doing forever. And by forever, we mean the last couple of weeks. With a New York crowd shaking off their blues from the Molina home run, we know that Jose Valentin singled to start the inning and Endy Chavez, bidding to be the all-around hero, singled as well.
With Cliff Floyd up, there came a small moment that honestly I don’t know that I ever really knew until my Meet Me at Musial co-host Allen Medlock reminded me of it. With a 1-2 count, two on, nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Wainwright threw a ball and then Molina, keeping an eye on Chavez at first, went for the pickoff.
Imagine that. The biggest stage imaginable with little margin for error and this guy, this young second-full-year catcher, goes for an out with a huge degree of difficulty. A wild throw at worst puts runners on second and third and most likely has a run in, a runner on third, and still nobody out. In New York with the World Series on the line, definitely the biggest stage he’s ever been on.
Talk about confidence. Talk about testicular fortitude. Allen noted that on a bonus disc with the 2006 World Series box set, Tony La Russa talked about that was the moment that he knew Molina was going to be a star. La Russa never wavered in his faith of Molina, calling him “the best catcher ever” after the 2011 Series. Molina, perhaps more than any catcher I’ve ever seen, can see and process the entire field and situation in an instant and diagnose what can be done to win the game.
We tend to forget that Wainwright got Floyd to strike out and Jose Reyes to line out to Edmonds. Those outs aren’t the big ones but they also help show the poise the young catcher had, shepherding Wainwright through the biggest obstacles he’d faced in his short professional career. However, Waino then walked Paul Lo Duca to bring up Carlos Beltran.
Bases loaded for Beltran, who to say that he had torched the Cardinals in his career would probably be insulting to fire. After the game, there was this quote from Wainwright: “I'm not a guy who gets nervous. I can remember only a handful of times in my life when I've been really nervous. This was the most nervous I've ever been in my life.” A rookie pitcher probably isn’t going to survive this. Not without a great mind leading him through it.
The crowd was roaring with Beltran up, certain that their World Series drought was about to end. To make sure everyone was on the same page, Molina went out to the mound and the two agreed to start Beltran off with a sinker. As he walked back to the plate, though, the Molina mind was still whirring and it settled on a different tactic. He called for the changeup.
Wainwright could have shaken him off. He could have worked his way back to the sinker they had decided on. Instead, he trusted his catcher and Beltran watched strike one go by, altering the whole at bat. Two pitches later came the legendary curveball that put The City That Never Sleeps to bed.
Wainwright gets a lot of the focus from that game and rightfully so, but put that inning together and you get a picture of the legend that Yadier Molina was going to become. The bat, coming through at the right time. The confidence, to go for a pickoff at first base in the biggest of moments. The intellect, to adjust on the fly to a better plan. The trust, to have Wainwright believe his new plan was the way to go.
There’s a word for people like that.