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Yadi still showing he's most important Cardinal

MLB.com @williamfleitch

The St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise that prides itself on being as coolly in control and on solid, rational, ordered terrain as any team in the sport, had never seemed more teetering on the edge of chaos and discord than it did on Saturday. At that time, the Cardinals:

• Had lost three in a row to drop to two games over .500, their lowest mark since April 19.

The St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise that prides itself on being as coolly in control and on solid, rational, ordered terrain as any team in the sport, had never seemed more teetering on the edge of chaos and discord than it did on Saturday. At that time, the Cardinals:

• Had lost three in a row to drop to two games over .500, their lowest mark since April 19.

• Had won only two of their last 10 series.

• Had dropped two series at home against last-place teams (San Diego and Miami) heading into a stretch in which they were playing 22 consecutive games against teams with winning records.

• Had suffered through serious oblique injuries to perhaps their three most important starting pitchers -- Michael Wacha, Alex Reyes and Carlos Martinez -- in the span of a month.

• Had, in the previous week, lost opening games of key series against division rivals Chicago and Milwaukee by scores of 13-5 and 11-3, respectively. Both games ended with utility infielder Greg Garcia on the mound.

• Had a postgame press conference from embattled manager Mike Matheny after that 11-3, four-error opening loss to the Brewers in which he insisted that everything was fine, that it was just a bad game, as Cardinals Twitter burned all around him and team president John Mozeliak told a radio station that "something has to change."

Two games shouldn't matter that much in the expanse of a long season, but the Cardinals were on the precipice. If they had lost those next two games to the Brewers, dropping them to .500 and sending them home to play the first place Indians -- a team that had won seven in a row -- essentially every scenario was on the table. Would Mozeliak finally lose patience and clean house? Would the Cardinals decide that 2018 wasn't their year and start preparing for the future? The Cardinals have missed the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since 2007-08, and haven't missed them three years in a row since 1997-99. Was this the end of a Cardinal era?

Then, on Saturday, down 2-1 to a Brewers team that might have the best bullpen in baseball, Yadier Molina stepped to the plate. He had already homered once in the game. He then did this:

Video: STL@MIL: Molina hammers second homer for the lead

One pitch is just one pitch, and one game is just one game. But if the Cardinals are able to turn this season around, if the current regime stays in charge, if the Cardinals can get back to the playoffs this season, Cardinals fans can look back at that homer as the moment that saved them, as the time when Molina put this team on his back, once again. Since that homer, the Cardinals have won four in a row, including Tuesday night's 11-2 shellacking of Corey Kluber and the Indians, and they have moved into a tie with the Dodgers for the second Wild Card spot. The whole season shifted in that moment. As always, it was Molina who did it.

It is probably worth it to take a step back and look at Molina's season. Molina's most well-known moment this season, even after that homer, is still this most unfortunate one on May 5:

Video: CHC@STL: Molina exits after getting hit by a foul tip

That is an awful incident in Major League Baseball, one that ilicits groans and sympathy pangs, but it is, generally, a common one. But there was nothing common about that one. It was essentially the nuclear fastball, Jordan Hicks throwing a 102-mph pitch fouled off by Kris Bryant, a man who hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game, landing in exactly the wrong place. The Cardinals have been mostly vague about the specifics of the injury -- a decision not a single person begrudges them -- but it sent Molina to the surgeon's table that very night. It also, somehow, cost him only one month of playing time. It is the most serious injury of his career. And it has not stopped him from being the Cardinals most valuable player, like always.

If you haven't noticed, Molina is having one of the best offensive seasons of his career. Buoyed by five homers since returning, Molina has his highest slugging percentage since 2012, he's on pace for the most homers of his career and he has his best OPS-plus since 2013, the year he finished third in MVP voting. He has stabilized a tumultuous pitching staff, in particular a bullpen that has been wobbly all year but is coming around, thanks to young pitchers like Hicks and Austin Gomber and veterans like Bud Norris and, lately, $14-million investment Greg Holland. He also, as has become the norm with Molina, essentially been in the lineup every day: Since returning on June 5, he has started every game but one, and none since June 7. (Poor backup Francisco Pena has six at-bats since June 8.)

My friend and colleague Bernie Miklasz, with whom I host a weekly podcast about the Cardinals, noted this week that Molina has the best home-run rate for a catcher in the National League, the second-highest slugging percentage among all catchers in baseball and most homers among all catchers. This is all just days before his 36th birthday on July 13. Molina is more important to the Cardinals than he has ever been at the point when most catchers are long out of baseball.

And, again, he's doing it when the team needs him most, when the ship was listing most dramatically. His homer against Milwaukee was reminiscent of 2011, when a similarly struggling Cardinals team rode Molina and Albert Pujols to an improbable run to the Wild Card Game despite being more than 10 games out in August. You might remember how that season turned out.

This is the first year of the three-year contract extension Molina signed before last season at $20 million a year, a contract that many questioned at the time. Molina has said he would like to retire a Cardinal, and that he might even retire when his contract runs out. How Molina performs in these last three years, in fact, might have a large impact on his ultimate Hall of Fame case. Molina seems certain to be a contentious Hall of Fame debate; many people within baseball think he's a slam dunk case, but analytically minded observers, including Hall of Fame sage Jay Jaffe, are skeptical. But much of the skepticism grew out of concerns that Molina would be able to keep playing at his established level well into that contract. We're only a sixth of the way through it, of course, but Molina not only has shrugged off the worst injury of his career, he's returned to hit as well as he ever has and still plays nearly every day. And he is, as ever, the most important Cardinal.

The Cardinals might make the playoffs this year, or they might not; Molina's homer against Milwaukee might end up being forgotten entirely. But what he continues to do, on a nightly basis, remains downright remarkable. Molina's superstar status -- he was once voted into the All-Star Game for four straight seasons -- has faded a bit in recent years; he's somehow fourth in NL All-Star Game voting, behind Kurt Suzuki, if you can believe that. But we are watching one of the best catchers of a generation, and one of the most truly vital Cardinals of all time, right now, almost at the age of 36, playing as well as he ever has and been as important as he has ever been. Molina is a marvel, and I'm not sure he'll ever truly be appreciated enough.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com

St. Louis Cardinals, Yadier Molina