Yadier Molina batted in the cleanup spot for the first time this season Wednesday night and turned it into one of the most memorable games of his career.
The St. Louis Cardinals catcher was 3-for-4 with two RBIs and broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth with his 100th career home run in a 4-3 victory over San Francisco at Busch Stadium that maintained a five-game lead over second-place Pittsburgh in the NL Central.
“It means a lot,” Molina said. “You always dream about your first one, but 100 means a lot. It’s a dream come true and I feel good about it.”
Molina connected on an 0-1 slider from Hunter Strickland, sending it into the left-field seats, a drive measured at 399 feet. Molina hit No. 99 on Monday in a 2-1 win over the Giants.
“I can’t lie to you. I was thinking about it,” Molina said of the chance to reach 100. “I was hoping to do it early enough so I could get it out of the way. I’m glad I did it tonight.
“Every time you get a hit to help your team win, it’s a great feeling. The first pitch, I was taking all the way. I was ready to hit after the first one. I think he was trying to go with the slider down and away, but he missed his spot. I was surprised he didn’t come with a fastball.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny inserted Molina into the cleanup position for no reason other than there were no obvious candidates. Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Randal Grichuk are on the disabled list and Jason Heyward was battling a hamstring injury.
“We just don’t have that guy right now,” Matheny said before the game. “We’re not necessarily looking for that (cleanup) guy to go in and hit home runs. It’s a different way of thinking about the cleanup spot.”
Matheny cracked a smile after the game when he considered the irony.
“I was wondering if you guys were going to bring that up,” Matheny said. “Yeah, that was subliminal, trying to get Yadi to hit home runs.
“It’s a great accomplishment, and we liked the timing. It’s something I’m sure he’ll never forget and it was a big win for our club.”
Molina had made 17 career starts hitting fourth and had batted just .175 (10-for-57) before Wednesday. The slate has been wiped clean, apparently.
“Obviously. I got three hits,” Molina said when asked whether he enjoyed the cleanup role. “If I get three more hits (Friday), yeah, I’ll like it. Anything to help the team win.”
Pitcher Jaime Garcia didn’t get the decision, but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of working with Molina, and later watching Molina connect for the game-winner.
“He’s the best catcher in baseball, by far,” Garcia said. “It’s something we talk about. We’re so fortunate. We’re spoiled because we have the best catcher in baseball not just with what he does defensiively, but the way he calls a game. Hopefully, he’ll continue to do what he’s been doing offensively, which adds on to what he already does defensively.”
Molina also threw out Kelby Tomlinson at second base from his knees when Tomlinson attempted a steal of second in the seventh inning.
“It’s sometimes about reaction,” Molina said of throwing from his knees, something he doesn’t work on regularly. “When you see the jump the runner has, you don’t have time to come up. So you have to react, and that’s the way I react, from my knees. I don’t like to throw from my knees, but in that case, he had a good jump, so I had to.”
Matheny has always admired San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, who has guided the Giants to three World Series championships in the last five seasons. They eliminated the Cardinals from the NL Championship Series in 2012 and 2014.
“I said this a lot last October: His teams just play a clean style of baseball,” Matheny said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. That’s something we anticipated would be a (differnce-maker) as we went into a series with them.”
Matheny said Bochy “creates an atmosphere for his guys that is pretty consistent.”
“He’s got talented players, too, and they have a great deal of respect for him and what he brings to the table,” Matheny said. “They’re prepared and are free to use their talents to just go play.”
Moss, Pham play
With Heyward (hamstring) sidelined for another game, other than serving as a pinch-hitter in the eighth, and with Grichuk (strained right elbow) on the disabled list, the Cardinals are taking long looks at newcomer Brandon Moss in left field and rookie Tommy Pham in center.
The Cardinals want to see what they have in Moss, who seems likely to play in the weekend series in San Diego, too, when Heyward is expected to return and play center for Grichuk.
“We’re in August right now, but we still have a new player that we haven’t seen that much of,” Matheny said of Moss. “We’re still trying to give Brandon opportunities and trying to get him going to see a part of him we know is out there. We do know this guy can be an impact bat for us.”
Matheny reiterated that the reason for playing Pham over Peter Bourjos was to see whether Pham could extend a hot streak that began at Class AAA Memphis.
“(We’re) trying to see if we can catch a little lightning from what he was doing in Memphis,” Matheny said. “That does create a tough situation for Peter Bourjos to get going. But I have all the confidence in the world that if things aren’t looking right and we throw (Bourjos) in there, he could be a game-changer for us.”
Bourjos, in an 0-for-17 skid, had a sacrifice Wednesday that helped produce the tying run in the seventh inning.
Adams heading out
First baseman Matt Adams doesn’t know when he will begin a rehab assignment, but he is heading in that direction.
Adams, sidelined since May with a strained right quad, will report to Jupiter, Fla., on Friday to continue to run, take batting practice and participate in fielding work.
“He went through another series of tests (Wednesday) and wasalmost 100 percent with the running,” Matheny said. “He ran well; he actually looked great. It’s positive as far as that goes. He’s just kind of taking it to the next step. He’s out there fielding some ground balls and moving around. It’s impressive what he’s been able to do.”
Center fielder Jon Jay, on the disabled list with a stress reaction in his left wrist, will travel with the Cardinals to San Diego, Arizona and San Francisco to continue baseball activities.
Like Adams, Jay is closing in on a minor-league rehab assignment.
Cardinals 4, Giants 3
Yadier Molina, batting cleanup for the first time this season, was 3-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs on Wednesday to lead the St. Louis Cardinals past the San Francisco Giants. Rookie Stephen Piscotty also homered for the Cardinals, who took two out of three in the series and finished 6-3 on the homestand.
By the numbers
Molina’s homer, a 399-foot blast to left against Hunter Strickland (2-3) in the eighth, was the 100th of his career and broke a 3-3 tie. ... Kevin Siegrist (5-0) worked a scoreless eighth for the win, while Trevor Rosenthal pitched the ninth for his 38th save. ... St. Louis maintained its five-game lead over Pittsburgh, which defeated Arizona. ... Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia allowed three runs (earned) on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings, walking one and striking out five.
John Lackey (10-7, 2.87 ERA) vs. Andrew Cashner (4-12, 4.20 ERA), 9:10 p.m. Friday in opener of three-game series in San Diego.