ST. LOUIS -- Smiles were in short supply on a cold Saturday at Busch Stadium when the end of two historic careers came much sooner than expected. However, Albert Pujols chuckled -- even if it was just for a second -- when close friend and teammate Yadier Molina refused to go down easily near the end.
With two outs in the ninth inning and the careers of Molina and Pujols hanging in the balance, the veteran catcher showed off his trademark grit and refusal to roll over by singling to extend the baseball lives of the Cardinals legends just a little bit longer.
“I was really happy for [Molina] there because he’s like my little brother,” Pujols said. “Then, I started pulling for Tommy [Edman] to hit a three-run homer so we could have a Game 3. I’m just happy for Yadi that his last at-bat was a base hit. For him, just like me, it’s going to take a while for this to soak in. More for him, actually, because he’s been with this organization for 19 years.
“At the end of the day, we’ve both been so blessed because we’ve had unbelievable careers,” added Pujols, who had two singles in his final game. “But I feel like we left a mark -- him here [in St. Louis] and myself in every place I played.”
The end of two likely Hall of Fame careers came when the Phillies finished off a two-game sweep of the Cardinals in the Wild Card Series with a 2-0 win. Just as Zack Wheeler did a day earlier, Philadelphia right-hander Aaron Nola blanked the Cardinals’ high-powered offense. On what proved to be the final night of their careers, the 42-year-old Pujols and the 40-year-old Molina combined for three of the Cardinals’ seven hits. Fittingly for the two-time World Series champions, Pujols and Molina ended their careers with hits in their final at-bats. Both were lifted for pinch-runners.
“I was concentrating to avoid being the last out of the game, and I prayed for a little bit,” Molina said. “Just to get a base hit was big for me. I hadn’t had a base hit in the last two weeks, so to be able to stay alive a little while longer felt good. I just wanted to give Tommy [Edman] a chance to win it.”
Molina, the winner of nine Gold Gloves and owner of hundreds of big moments in Cardinals history, announced last year that 2022 would be his final season. It was anything but an easy road for Molina as he reported late to Spring Training and took a six-week sabbatical midway through the season to rehabilitate his aching knee and battered psyche. When he made it back, he teamed with 41-year-old starting pitcher Adam Wainwright to become the winningest and most durable battery in NL/AL history with 213 wins and 328 career starts.
“In this organization, his voice is going to be missed,” Pujols said. “The good thing will be what the people he trained below him for 19 years picked up. I’m sure they learned a lot.”
Pujols learned what he meant to baseball fans in St. Louis by returning to the city where he starred from 2001-11 and authored one of the most stirring finishes to a career in MLB history. After struggling in the first three months of the season and contemplating retirement, Pujols got going in July and put on a show for all of baseball to watch as he charged toward 700 career home runs. On Sept. 23 at Dodger Stadium, with his six children looking on, Pujols smashed home runs No. 699 and No. 700 to become just the fourth player in baseball history to reach that milestone.
As much as Pujols sent a charge into the Cardinals organization with his stirring home run surge, he said he was as inspired by the record crowds that packed Busch Stadium. In what proved to be the final regular-season at-bat of his career in St. Louis, he blasted home run No. 702. And in his final playoff at-bat came a hard-hit single between the third-base bag and Phillies defensive standout Alec Bohm.
“It was never about me when I came back here,” said Pujols, who is one of just two players in NL/AL history with at least 3,000 hits and 700 home runs. “It was about an organization opening the door and allowing me to come back and finish my career here. My goal was always to help this ballclub win.”