USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale gives a preview of the semifinal game, which takes place Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.
USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — Catcher Yadier Molina, the last player to walk out of the Puerto Rico clubhouse, slowly walked down the corridor, turned right, walked down another hallway, and finally reached the elevator.
Thank God, he joked, because he was almost too weary to go further, with the clock now approaching midnight after playing one of the most dramatic games of his life.
Here is a man who has won two World Series rings, eight Gold Glove awards and is a seven-time All-Star, who may very well be enshrined in Cooperstown one day.
He’s 34 years old, with a body that has been battered and beaten up over the years. Yet, instead of taking it easy in hopes of staying healthy for the final year of his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, he’s spending his spring playing for Puerto Rico, virtually willing his body for his country.
Molina now has Puerto Rico on the brink of the World Baseball Classic championship, winning 4-3 in 11 innings Monday against the Netherlands. They play the winner of Tuesday night’s USA-Japan game for the WBC championship at Dodger Stadium.
It may be a tournament that has America yawning – with few paying attention outside of hardcore baseball fans – but if you watch Molina, he’s showing more emotion than at any time he’s worn a Cardinals uniform. The man pouring his soul into winning the championship.
“It means everything to me,” Molina told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m here to win the tournament. I want to win the tournament so bad. Winning this would mean everything to me.
It’s one thing to win World Series titles with the Cardinals but for Puerto Rico to be crowned champion, knocking off the most powerful countries in the world, he can’t begin to describe the emotions.
“It would mean just as much, if not more,” Molina said of his World Series titles. “This is for our country. You get emotional when you play for your country.”
This is why Molina was standing in front of the Puerto Rico dugout after the 4 hour, 19-minute game, throwing his arms up in the air, rubbing his blonde dyed hair, waving the Puerto Rican flag, and exalting their legion of proud fans among the crowd of 24,865.
He had just caught 11 innings, received 182 pitches, threw out two baserunners in one inning, settled down six pitchers, stoppined a potential brawl, and put down the sacrifice bunt that led to Eddie Rosario’s game-winning sacrifice fly. Yet, he still felt like a 12-year-old winning a Little League game with a Popsicle treat waiting.
“Of course you are emotional,” Molina says. “It was a big win for us. So it an emotional time. It’s an emotional tournament.”
Their uniforms may say Puerto Rico, but make no mistakes about it, this is Molina’s team. He’s the one who started sending potential player candidates to manager Edwin Rodriguez as far back as two years ago. He created a WhatsApp chat room in December for all of the players to get to know one another. And he was the one who sat down and studied scouting reports all winter, learning all of the tendencies of his pitching staff, their strengths and weaknesses.
“What he’s doing now, not only with the pitch-calling, but also the bat,” says infielder Enrique Hernandez, “you can’t ask for anymore from your team leader. He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around in my career, making us a team.
“He was the one who took time out of his personal life to create a chat where every single member of the team was in it. We were basically talking to each other every single day, 24/7, from the moment we wake up until the moment we went to sleep.
“When we got to Arizona, we were so happy to see each other, we felt we had known each other for our entire lives. Yadi did that for us.”
Now, Molina has Puerto Rico just 27 outs away from the WBC title, virtually taking over the semifinal victory with his arm.
No one has ever seen quite anything like it.
It started when the Netherlands’ first three batters reached base. Yet, because of the wizardry of Molina, there were two outs.
Andrelton Simmons opened the game with a single, and Xander Bogaerts was hit by a pitch. Jurickson Profar faked a bunt, and Simmons wandered off the bag. Molina popped up and threw to second base, nailing Simmons while trying to scramble back.
Profar followed with a single to right, and when Bogaerts stopped at third, Profar started celebrating.
He was wildly clapping his hands, gesturing towards the dugout, looking towards the stands. He was a foot off the bag when Molina fired to first. First baseman T.J. Rivera slapped the tag on Profar’s thigh, and Profar lowered his head in embarrassment, walking back to the dugout.
It turned out to be huge because Wladimir Balentien followed with a home run into the left-field bleachers. Instead of it being a grand slam, it was just a two-run shot, and the Netherlands was never truly able to recover.
“For me, that was the game,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “That Yadi Molina did what he did, for me, that was the game. Yadier Molina came to play.”
Molina caught more games than any catcher in baseball last season, and he has still volunteered to catch every single inning in this tournament.
“I think this is one of the greatest times he’s having right now,” 22-year-old Puerto Rico infielder Carlos Correa said, “being able to be one of the older guys teaching the younger guys, but at the same time, having fun like a little kid. I mean, he’s having a blast.
“The other day when we beat the Dominican, he came into the clubhouse and said it was the best game he’s ever played and been part of.”
If Molina isn’t throwing out runners, he’s getting huge base hits. When he’s not hitting, he’s calming down his pitchers. It’s like having another manager on the field, Rodriguez says.
“I can’t say I ever pitched to a catcher that locked in,” says Seth Lugo, who will start Wednesday for Puerto Rico, “and in every pitch of every play in every game.”
Says veteran reliever J.C. Romero: “It’s like having a scouting report right behind home plate.”
On this night, it was as if they had a fifth umpire on the field, too. When Puerto Rico pitcher Edwin Diaz threw a 99-mph fastball up-and-in to Balentien, backing him off the plate, Balentien angrily gestured and yelled to Diaz. Both benches emptied, with everyone staring at each other. Molina told home-plate umpire Lance Barksdale to relax, he’d handle it.
When Diaz struck out Balentien on the next pitch, Molina jumped up in front of the plate, making sure that Balentien wasn’t going to charge the mound. Diaz ended the inning by striking out Jonathan Schoop, and screaming in excitement. Molina again jumped out in front of the plate, walking Diaz back to the dugout before any extracurricular activity could take place.
“That’s what makes him so great,” Carlos Beltran says. “He studies the game so well, and most of the guys in our bullpen are so very young, so they depend a lot on him. He can just impact the game is so many ways, making pitchers more aggressive, and then calming them at the same time.
“There’s only one Yadier Molina.”
Why, even in the 11th inning, playing with the international rules that require inning to open with runners on first and second, Rodriguez called upon Molina to bunt. He hasn’t laid down more than one sacrifice bunt in a season in five years, and popped up a bunt attempt in the eighth inning.
When Molina saw the sign again, he didn’t hesitate. He laid down the bunt perfectly, moving the runners into scoring position. Javier Baez was intentionally walked, loading the bases, and Rosario came through with a fly ball to center field. Profar’s throw was short and off-line, allowing Correa to dance across home plate, and the party was underway.
“It means a lot for us, it means a lot for Puerto Rico, and of course it means a lot to Yadi,” Rodriguez said. “You cannot shut him down and try to make him something different. He is what he is.
“Yadi Molina plays every game, every inning, and every pitch with passion. To do that as a catcher, that’s amazing.”
It’s the only style, Molina says, that he knows, one that’s being appreciated now more than ever.
“Yadi and I talked about the joy we’re giving our country right now,” Beltran said. We’re going through tough times. So what we’re doing right now is unbelievable. I think everybody’s rooting for us.
“And what Yadi is doing, man, what can you say?
“We go as he goes. We wouldn’t be here without him.”