As the Cardinals readied for Thursday’s series finale against the Chicago Cubs, left fielder Matt Holliday clung to his one-word description for what he had seen Yadier Molina do the previous night.
Thinking along with Cubs starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, Molina calculated that the ex-Redbirds righthander would challenge him inside with a two-strike fastball. For all his statistical blandness against the Cardinals, Jackson carries explosive stuff. His offering to Molina ran several inches inside and dove to just above the hitter’s ankles. Jackson would later claim the pitch behaved as he wanted: a pitcher’s pitch.
The Cardinal catcher did what great hitters — not merely good ones — do. First, he remained committed to his approach. Then, finding the ball in his anticipated zone, Molina wheeled, turning an out pitch into a drive that stayed fair as it cleared the left-field wall. The improbability of it all left
Jackson doubled over in front of the mound. A 1-1 game became the Cardinals’ 3-1 sixth-inning lead in what ended a 4-1 win.
This is the season in which Molina has combined the ridiculous with the sublime.
Seven seasons after his .216 average ranked last among the 99 National League hitters with at least 450 plate appearances, Molina entered Thursday with a .365 average that led 154 NL hitters owning at least 100 plate appearances.
This is not happenstance, some three-month breakout by a player whose career path remained held down by offensive ineptitude. Rather, it is the latest chapter in a remarkable transformation spread over seven years.
A power-thin .238 hitter in his first three major-league seasons, Molina entered Thursday having batted .321 in the last three. The same player who scuffled for 90 hits in 129 games in ‘06 led both leagues with 93 hits after working 66 games this season.
Molina lugged around a .240 average after his first 1,000 major-league at-bats. He now carries a career .285 average. Since hitting no better than .275 in his first four seasons, Molina has batted less than .293 in only one of the five before this. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage has migrated from .595 in 2006 to a present-day .920.
“It’s confidence,” he says. “Before, I didn’t have confidence in my offense.”
Once a man of 1,000 stances and at least as many doubts at the plate, Molina now offers consistency. He has adopted a leg kick and lowered his hands. A willingness to drive the ball to right field has replaced a pull-first tendency. Once a notorious first-pitch swinger, he now wades easily into deep counts.
Where Molina might have panicked following several unproductive at-bats, his set-up at the plate now remains firm.