One of the rarest things in baseball, for a decade and a half, almost, is sucking to be Yadier Molina. You can count on half a hand how often that’s happened. At least until this week in Boston.
Tuesday night—Molina kills a fourth-inning no-out rally by grounding into a 5-4-3 triple play, an inning before the Red Sox drop an eight-spot on the Cardinals. Molina probably wanted to find the nearest mouse hole to hide in after the 10-4 shellacking.
Wednesday night—a perfect strike home from the cutoff man bounds off his mitt as Jackie Bradley, Jr. sails past the plate and scrambles back to touch it before Molina can retrieve the ball, finishing the conversion of a very early 4-0 Cardinals lead into a 5-4 Red Sox triumph.
It wasn’t a World Series game and it didn’t have to be. Being in the early heat of the stretch drive was fateful enough when the game began. When Bradley touched the plate on his scramble back, you could hear Cardinal Country start to rehearse its mantra just in case.
Yadier Molina lost the ball!
They were probably no more able to believe it than Molina himself. It’s not unreasonable to think that even the Red Sox couldn’t believe it. Compared to this, strike three getting stuck on Molina’s chest protector in earliest April—leading to a safe batter, a walk, a three-run homer, and a Cubs win—was just a night at the Improv.
What a long way it’s been, from the night Molina dropped the mask over the Mets in Game Seven, 2006 National League Championship Series, when he hit Aaron Heilman’s dead fish over the left field fence in the top of the ninth, leaving only Adam Wainwright to throw the switch with the curve ball that froze Carlos Beltran in the bottom for game, set, and World Series trip.
But there the ball popped Wednesday night, off to Molina’s left, as it ricocheted off Molina’s mitt just before Bradley slid by and scrambled back. Bradley needn’t have worried. For one of the only times in Molina’s career the catcher was a day late and maybe a million dollars short, if the Cardinals end up missing by a single game a postseason that once looked about as reachable for them as Mars aboard a DC-3.
That was on a night the Red Sox never hit with a lead, the Cardinals carped—not unreasonably—about plate umpire Chris Segal’s strike zone, which was somewhere between inconsistent and incompetent, and fretted over Trevor Rosenthal’s barking elbow that now has him on the ten-day disabled list.
The bottom of the ninth opened with a bang when Xander Bogaerts hit Rosenthal’s second pitch of the inning into the Green Monster seats. Between the elbow barking and a struggle to loosen up, Rosenthal threw a meatball with nothing but “bon appetit” on it and Bogaerts had the perfect ninth-inning snack.
It ended with the run that may yet prove to have broken the back of the Cardinals and their season.
In the interim, Mitch Moreland followed the bomb with a walk and Chris Young pinch ran for him. When Brock Holt came up to pinch hit for Christian Vasquez, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny lifted Rosenthal for Zach Duke, who struck out Holt but walked Bradley before coming out for rookie John Brebbia.
Before Brebbia got Eduardo Nunez to foul out, he had to stop on the proverbial dime when Segal called time out, apparently because Brebbia held the ball too long. Molina sprang up and started barking without hesitation, and Matheny shot out of the dugout with all motors firing to protect his man.
Segal threw Matheny out of the game. He’s probably lucky Brebbia didn’t do something to his throwing arm when he pulled his delivery and let the ball float down the lane. Then Brebbia wrestled to a full count with Mookie Betts, Betts laying off the outer slider Brebbia on which the reliever thought Betts would bite. Betts didn’t even nibble.
“It changed the whole at-bat,” Betts told reporters after the game. “I was able to force him to throw a strike, and any time I can get a strike, I have a better chance of getting good wood on it. Being able to lay off those definitely gave me a better opportunity.”
Brebbia tried to sneak another slider around Betts. It snuck right in through the lobby. And Betts snuck it right off the Monster, just above that part of the scoreboard showing the American League East standings with the Red Sox squarely on top.
Cardinals left fielder Tommy Pham played the carom nearly perfect, bare-handing the ball and whipping it to tthird baseman Jedd Gyorko, the cutoff man, as Young scored the tying run. Gyorko wheeled and fired a perfect strike to the plate. It should have kicked the game to extra innings.
When the ball bounded off Molina’s mitt it might as well have bounded off his foot. Molina wasn’t even next to the plate when Bradley scrambled back to touch it making sure. Bradley may have scrambled what was left of the Cardinals’ eggs before they could get them back in the basket.
“I pulled my hand back completely to try and avoid the tag,” said Bradley after the game, seeming still a little dazed by the net results. “I knew I didn’t tag it at first. I didn’t pay attention whether he had the ball or not. I was just trying to tag the plate.”
What a season for the veteran who’s been one of the most respected backstops in baseball, since almost the first day he spent as the Cardinals’ number one catcher.
First, on 7 April, in the seventh, Cardinals pitcher Brett Cecil threw strike three to then-Cub Matt Szczur that hit the dirt and disappeared entirely, so it seemed, allowing Szczur to take first before any and everyone realised the ball was stuck to Molina’s chest protector. A walk later Kyle Schwarber hit the first pitch into the right field seats and turned a 4-2 Cardinal lead into a 5-4 deficit that ended as a 6-4 loss.
That blow didn’t hurt as much as Wednesday night’s rebound off the mitt may prove. The only thing that’s going to stick this time is how a half inning that began with the Red Sox in the hole by two ended with the Red Sox winning by a run.
Yadier Molina lost the ball!
It’s up to the Cardinals to decide whether Molina really broke their heart Wednesday night, after they’d spent the night before surrendering an eight run inning to the Red Sox . . . an inning after Molina dialed that triple play. Of course, nobody told Matt Carpenter to forget it should have been simple to score from third on a single even if he did think at first the ball might be caught.
And nobody told Cardinals starter Lance Lynn to throw wild past first after picking Nunez’s grounder back to the box clean, allowing Vasquez to score the second Boston run, either.
Things like those used to happen to . . . the Red Sox, in the bad old years. Beginning with the high throw from Leon Culberson that kept Johnny Pesky from a fair shot at cuffing and stuffing Enos Slaughter at home, leaving generations of Red Sox Nation changing his name to “Johnny Pesky Held the Ball.”
Molina isn’t the first reliable veteran to fumble doing his best at the worst possible moment. He won’t be the last. But it didn’t look good coming not too long after Molina called out Matheny for implying he no longer had what was needed to be the Cardinals’ regular catcher.
And the Cardinals’ storied history tends to feature them on the right side of the other guys’ mistakes.
Ron Washington tries the no-doubles defense with the Rangers a strike away from winning the 2011 World Series? David Freese hits the game-tying triple past hapless Nelson Cruz who can’t run the ball down . . . the first of two game-tying Cardinal hits down to their final strike in that Game Six, before Freese ends it in the eleventh with the home run St. Louis casts in platinum.
Line up all the classic pennant stretch or postseason—no, we’re not going to say goats—mishaps and you can fit on your thumb those involving men in Cardinal uniforms. Curt Flood losing Dick McAuliffe’s ball in the sun (Game Seven, 1968 World Series) was the exception, not the franchise rule.
The Red Sox eventually obliterated those generations of extraterrestrial heartbreak. In the 2004 World Series. At the Cardinals’ expense. Then, with Series rings at the Rockies’ expense in the interim in 2007, the Red Sox won their third Series in ten seasons at the Cardinals’ expense.
The Cardinals may still be only two and a half behind the Cubs in the National League Central by today’s standings, but right now it must feel like they’re twenty and a half as they open a weekend with the Pirates. So much for the eight-game winning streak that recharged them entering Boston.
Just try to imagine how Molina himself must feel. Last week, a rally cat scampering around the field put a charge into his bat and he blasted a grand slam into the left field seats. Last night, it was as if an alley cat put one into the ball bounding off his mitt.
Yadier Molina lost the ball!
Send the damned alley cat to Birds Anonymous.