“He got a hit and went 1-for-3 [against me],” Wainwright remembers.
This was May 9, 2003, in front of 4,793 fans in a Double-A game between the Greenville Braves and the Tennessee Smokies. Most were there to see former Cardinals phenom Rick Ankiel, who was back in the Minors trying to revive his career. His catcher that night was Molina, who was 20. His opponent was Wainwright, 21, still a highly touted prospect in the Braves' system.
Both were unaware of how their lives would soon intersect and link forever. The Cardinals traded for Wainwright that winter, and invited him and Molina to big league camp the following spring. The first bullpen Wainwright threw with the Cardinals was to then-starting catcher and future manager Mike Matheny. The second was to Molina, on some backfield in Jupiter, far from the spotlight. Wainwright and Molina became a battery that year at Triple-A Memphis, thus beginning one of the more fruitful, enduring, singular relationships in modern baseball history.
When Wainwright toes the Busch Stadium rubber for Sunday’s Game 3 of the National League Division Series, it’ll be his 277th big league start (including postseason) throwing to Molina. There are five starter/catcher combinations with more starts together (including postseason), but none since 1975, when Bill Freehan last caught Mickey Lolich (324 games). One more full season together could vault them as high as fourth all time, past Bill Dickey and Red Ruffing (282 starts) and Don Drysdale and Johnny Roseboro (283).
“You start off as a teammate with someone, then you learn how to be friends. Then after a while what happens is, you’ve played with somebody for so long that you don’t even know what it would look like without him there,” Wainwright said. “He is, without question, one of the things I’ll look back and be able to tell my kids about. One of the most proud things for me was to be able to pitch to Yadier Molina every fifth day.”
That’s mostly the way it’s been for a decade-and-a half, thanks largely to Molina’s remarkable durability. In 15 full big league seasons, Molina has never played fewer than 110 games. He appeared in at least 120 in 11 seasons since 2005, the most of any MLB backstop over that stretch. It’s an arrangement that’s never offered much chance for an understudy to get a run, and that’s allowed a rapport to build between batterymates that nearly everyone who comes in contact with them marvels at.
“They’re thinking almost with one brain,” backup catcher Matt Wieters said. “It’s not just the trust factor, it’s the next level, where they both know what the other is thinking, and don’t need to talk about it anymore.”
Coming to the Cardinals this year after spending 10 big league seasons elsewhere, what struck Wieters was seeing this dynamic play out on the field. It’s not just that Wainwright and Molina are in sync. They know each other so well, often Molina doesn’t even throw signs down. When he does, Wainwright says he can predict them based on how Molina is positioned behind the plate.
“Sometimes he looks out at me and he knows what I’m thinking. And he’ll suggest things based on what I’m thinking,” Wainwright said. “And on the flip side, based on how he holds his hands, I know what he’s going to call before he puts his fingers down. I can already start shaking or agreeing because I know what the shape of his hand looks like before he even calls it.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux calls it “telepathy.” Manager Mike Shildt calls it “magical.” Approaching Wainwright on a recent day, Maddux, whose baseball career dates back to 1982, called the Wainwright-Molina relationship “a special thing I’ve never seen before.”
“[Former backup catcher] Tony Cruz told me one time, ‘Hey I’m catching you today, but I don’t really know the language that’s not spoken that you and Yadi speak together,'” Wainwright said. “'When you’re moving your head one way or another and he’s moving his hands one way or another, and that means a pitch. I don’t know how that works. Can you tell me how to get that?’
"‘Yeah,’" I said, "‘Ten years of catching me will get you that.’”
Cruz never got it. He never got much of a chance. Of the 15 other backstops to catch Wainwright on occasion, only two -- Gary Bennett (29 games) and Cruz (19) have done so more than six times. Of Wainwright’s 383 regular-season appearances, 309 have come with Molina behind the plate**,** including 265 of his 316 starts. That’s upwards of 83 percent over 14 seasons. Sunday against the Braves will mark their 23rd postseason appearance together and 12th start, good for 12th all-time.
Will it be the last? That uncertainty surrounds Wainwright again this autumn, as it did at this time last year. Though he defied expectations with his resurgent 2019 season, Wainwright is 38 and unsigned past these playoffs. Molina initially said he planned to retire after his current deal expires in 2020, but has since walked those intentions back. Either way, he’ll be 38 when the contract is up. The Cardinals’ playoff dreams can be over by next week. October is never promised, not even in these parts.
But the constant, ageless battery that is Wainwright and Molina will remain charged for at least one more day.
“I can’t wait to pitch to Yadi again tomorrow. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do is pitch to No. 4,” Wainwright said. “When you’ve been through as much as we’ve been through, popped as much champagne as we’ve popped -- and we missed three years in a row now -- when you experience that stuff with someone, you realize you never know when it's going to be your last time. You have to enjoy it. You enjoy it the most with the people you’re closest with.”