'He's figuring it out': How Molina continues to find footing

April 25th, 2024

DENVER -- Near the end of Spring Training, Rockies rookie right-hander shed happy tears after being told he had made the team as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Soon, though, he started smiling -- and hasn’t stopped.

The numbers in Molina’s first two outings were historically poor, but he stayed positive. The next two outings were some of what the Rockies saw when they drafted him from the Rays -- with hopes of developing him into a Major League starter. A few days ago, Molina, 22, caught a reporter’s eye, grinned as big as ever and said, “Improving.”

Now, those around Molina put on their happy faces when discussing his future.

On Wednesday night, Molina fashioned his second straight scoreless, three-inning outing while finishing the Rockies’ 5-2 loss to the Padres at Coors Field.

“The delivery is more consistent,” manager Bud Black said. “The fastball is coming out better. There’s been an uptick in the velocity, which is good to see. I think he’s loosening up, not as tense as he was for a couple weeks, as expected.”

After Wednesday’s game, Molina was quiet -- the proper behavior in a losing clubhouse. But nearby, Ty Blach, who allowed four earned runs across five innings in his first Major League start of the year, said Molina is “going to be a really good Major League pitcher for a long time.”

Molina could not contain a smile.

The reasons to be happy are increasing.

In his first two Major League outings, lopsided losses to the Diamondbacks and Cubs, Molina gave up 11 runs in 3 1/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher since the Astros’ Brady Rogers in 2016 to allow at least five runs in each of his first two career games. Had he continued on that path, the Rockies would have had to consider not carrying him the full year in the Majors -- a decision that would have triggered all kinds of Rule 5 contingencies, beginning with having to waive him and offer him back to Tampa Bay for $50,000, if not claimed.

But Molina began to find his stride on April 14, despite giving up one run on three hits in his inning at Toronto. On Saturday, his three scoreless frames against the Mariners with two strikeouts and no walks.

On Wednesday, Molina held the Padres to one hit and one walk. He had help from catcher and fellow Venezuelan Elias Díaz, who threw out two runners attempting to steal. Molina finished strong, forcing José Azocar into an inning-ending double play.

Molina caught the eyes of Rockies scouts by pounding the zone with a fastball-changeup combination in the Minors. Notably, the aforementioned double play came on a pitch the Rockies believe Molina can develop: a slider. After this season, Molina will join the young prospects and trade acquisitions the Rockies are collecting for a future rotation.

“I’m keeping my confidence up and executing my pitches,” Molina said, with bullpen catcher Aaron Muñoz interpreting. “That’s big -- and continuing to locate when I need to locate.”

All of Molina’s outings have come with the Rockies (6-19) trailing. They were at least in dreaming distance Wednesday, thanks to solo homers by Ryan McMahon -- one of four hits in six innings against Padres knuckleballing starter Matt Waldron -- and Díaz.

By no means are these innings frivolous, but he could earn heightened innings.

“He’s figuring it out,” Rockies pitching coach Darryl Scott said. “As he grows over the course of this season, hopefully he can get into a position where if we need a seventh-inning guy, he can come in. You can see the confidence growing.”

Molina has had much support.

Right-handed starter Germán Márquez, who is in Arizona rehabbing with an eye toward a midseason return from right elbow surgery, mentored him in Spring Training and is always a text away. Díaz pulled him aside for encouragement after a messy debut at Arizona on Opening Night. Each day, veteran lefty reliever Jalen Beeks, his catch partner, and bullpen coach Reid Cornelius are constantly teaching.

When Molina learned he had made the club, he called his mother in Venezuela and they shared their happy tears. Now they talk every day, and she is there to help him smile -- should he need it.

“My mom is motivating me to be positive, telling me I can get them next time,” Molina said. “Constantly keeping that communication with her is the key.

“And, she’s my mom.”

If all continues in the right direction, Molina will be a pitcher who folks beyond a mother can love.