Tony La Russa was beaming late Sunday under the stands behind home plate at AT&T Park. Moments before, Puerto Rico had advanced to the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, and Yadier Molina, La Russa’s old catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, had led them there, as Tyler Kepner reports in this article for The New York Times.
Molina had no hits. He tagged out no runners at the plate and threw out no runners on the bases. But the performance was breathtaking to his former manager.
“He just doesn’t allow his team to lose,” La Russa said. “It’s entertainment at the highest level. He is so good, it’s amazing. You watch him the whole game, and he’s worth the price of admission.”
La Russa continued: “It’s not just instinct. It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.”
Puerto Rico, which will play the Netherlands or the Dominican Republic for the title on Tuesday, has a thin pitching staff, to put it kindly. Of the six pitchers Molina guided on Sunday, only two played in the majors last season — a reliever for Houston named Xavier Cedeno and the veteran J. C. Romero, who is unsigned. Yet Puerto Rico ousted Japan, the two-time defending champion, allowing just six hits in a 3-1 victory.
Any team can have a bad day at the plate, especially against unfamiliar pitchers. But with Molina, those days are fairly common, and no coincidence. He helped La Russa win a championship in 2006, coaxing World Series victories from Anthony Reyes and Jeff Weaver. The Cardinals won again five years later.
“He is as great a catcher as anybody that’s ever played the game,” La Russa said. “He blocks balls as well as anybody’s ever blocked balls. He throws as quick and as strong and as accurate as anybody’s ever thrown. He thinks and manages a game and a pitching staff as well as anybody ever has. He’s as physically tough, handling the dings and bruises, as anybody in the history of the game.”
The catcher for the San Francisco Giants, Buster Posey, has also won two World Series and last year added a Most Valuable Player award. Yet Posey’s teammate Angel Pagan sat in the Puerto Rico dugout late Sunday and said nobody compared to Molina.
“I have the best view watching him call games, after the pitcher, and it’s unbelievable,” Pagan said. “He’s the best.”
Romero played briefly with Molina in St. Louis last season and has known him for years. He has told the younger Puerto Rico pitchers to trust Molina, to follow him even if he calls a pitch that might not be their best.
Molina, of course, is part of a family of catchers, the younger brother of Bengie, who is retired, and Jose, who catches for Tampa Bay. It does not take a Molina long to learn a pitching staff, in keeping with an island tradition.
“It’s kind of funny when you look at all the catchers from Puerto Rico — Benito Santiago, Pudge Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada — it doesn’t take long for them to see your strength and your weakness,” Romero said. “They read pitchers really well, and Yadi’s no exception.”
To La Russa, the best example of this came in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Molina had homered in the top of the ninth to give St. Louis a two-run lead. Now the bases were loaded with two outs for Carlos Beltran.
On the bench, La Russa suggested that his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, check on pitcher Adam Wainwright.
“He goes, ‘Look,’ and Yadi’s calling time and making the trip,” La Russa said. “I said, ‘Dave, I know, but still, this is a situation, so you don’t have any regrets later on, you should be part of that conversation.’ He says, ‘No, Yadi’s got it.’ ”
La Russa later learned that Molina had told Wainwright to start Beltran with a sinker. But on his way back to the plate, Molina changed his mind. He reasoned that Wainwright, as a rookie in a high-pressure spot, might get too excited and overthrow the sinker, leaving it up in the strike zone.
Duncan hated the idea of starting hitters with changeups. The pitch is more effective when working off something that came before. But Molina changed the plan, and Wainwright delivered a beauty. Beltran took it for strike one.
Ahead in the count, Wainwright finished Beltran with two curveballs, the last of which La Russa called “the greatest finishing pitch in postseason history.” But the decision to start with a changeup, he said, crystallized Molina’s genius.
“No. 1, you’ve got to be smart enough to figure something like that out,” La Russa said. “And No. 2, you’ve got to have the courage to act on what you figure, because something like that is very risky. If it’s a hanging changeup, it’s a grand slam. But you’ve got to have the guts not to worry about covering your butt, and follow through.”
Wainwright followed through. So did Romero and the others to eliminate Japan. With one more victory, Molina will have another championship.