St. Louis Cardinals

Ageless Molina is heart of Cardinals' lineup and soul of their clubhouse

Cardinals starting catcher Yadier Molina in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida.
Cardinals starting catcher Yadier Molina in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. snagy@bnd.com

If there's anything for which I blame the millennial generation, it's their overuse of the word "amazing."

When you use the same word in describing a masterpiece of modern art that you might use for your favorite pizza joint, you've changed its fundamental meaning.

By its classic definition, though, I can't think of a more appropriate word for Yadier Molina.

How many years now have fans and media howled about making sure he gets more time off? We've ranted about his advancing age, the physical demands of his position and have insisted year after year that manager Mike Matheny will someday run his eight-time All-Star into the ground.

And year after year, Molina proves himself ageless.

He'll be 36 years old before the current season ends and we're all still waiting for some sign that he's slowing down.

Statistically, it's hard to make much meaning of Molina's career trends — some metrics have slid a little, others have actually improved.

But consider the two halves of 2017: In 75 games before the All-Star break, Molina batted .270 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs. In 61 games after, he batted .279 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs. His slugging percentage climbed from .411 to .475.

That's right: As the innings mounted last season, Molina actually got better.

You want to talk about toughness? That's toughness.

So is this:

Molina hit the Busch Stadium turf during the ninth inning of Saturday's win over the Cubs with an injury that took the breath away from every male in the sellout crowd.

A 102-mph fastball was redirected by a foul tip into his most sensitive area. It hit him so hard and so squarely that Molina required emergency surgery on what was gruesomely described as a traumatic pelvic hematoma.

Yet, in the moments immediately after the blow, you could see Molina aligning himself in his spot behind the batter's box and trying to shoo away the training staff, as if he was going to continue to play. It's impressive enough that he was able to walk off the field by himself.

As it is, the heart of the lineup and the soul of the clubhouse will be out at least a month, which hits the Cardinals like a swift kick to the you-know-what.

Festive Latino music pulsates almost daily from Molina's corner of the locker room, which he shares with Fernando Pena, Jose Martinez, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong.

This new Cardinals core has looked loose and confident as the veteran catcher in the middle.

Even after missing the playoffs the two previous seasons — having ceded the Central Division to the Chicago Cubs — the Cardinals have somehow discovered some renewed swagger, scoring an important and hugely symbolic sweep of the Cubs at Busch Stadium.

When Fowler cinched Sunday's series finale with a walk-off home run in the 14th inning, the Cardinals summoned their unofficial team captain via FaceTime so that he could enjoy the celebration.

Wunderkind Carson Kelly, 23, was recalled from Triple-A Memphis on Sunday to take Molina's innings. It would be great to one of the organization's most highly anticipated prospects make hay with this opportunity.

But it would be unfair to expect Kelly to replace Molina's steady hand behind the plate, his deft handling of the young pitching staff, his presence behind Ozuna in the lineup and the respect he commands in the clubhouse.

It also would be unfair to expect Kelly to be what Molina has been through 14 plus gritty seasons as a Redbird.

Which is nothing short of amazing.

Todd Eschman is sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or 618-239-2540.
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