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Cards show their faith in Molina

Cards show their faith in Molina

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ST. LOUIS -- Since the start of divisional play, exactly two teams have made the World Series with catchers as young as Yadier Molina. Of course, that's probably also the number of teams who have had 23-year-old catchers as mature as Molina in that same time span. Molina, who turned 23 in July, is trying to follow a trail blazed by a couple of special backstops.

In 1970, Johnny Bench made the first great mark in a Hall of Fame career, winning the MVP and leading the Reds to the World Series before his 23rd birthday. In 1981, it was Mike Scioscia guiding the Dodgers to the Fall Classic, one of the early highlights in a career that led to his current standing one of the game's best and most successful managers.

Whether Molina will make it to Cooperstown, or manage, or even make an All-Star team or win a Gold Glove, is yet to be determined. In the short term, he just wants to follow Scioscia's example and win the World Series. Good luck finding someone who thinks he's not up to the task.

"He may be 23 years old in age, but he's very mature," said teammate Abraham Nunez. "He knows well what he's doing out there. He goes out there and he gets in the pitcher's face. 'This is what we're going to do. This is what you've got to do to get this guy out.' He's a leader. He has really impressed me."

In his 2004 Major League debut, Molina learned from one of the game's best defensive catchers and finest leaders, three-time Gold Glover Mike Matheny. When Matheny was offered a three-year contract by the Giants, the Cardinals let him walk.

It wasn't an easy decision for St. Louis, but it would have been far tougher if the Cards hadn't known Molina was waiting in the wings. Molina's brief taste of the bigs in '04 just reinforced what the club had long believed: that he may be young, but he's remarkably precocious both physically and mentally.

"I think we felt comfortable with it," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "It was difficult to let Mike go, but as far as having any reservations about turning it over to this guy, no way. Not at all. We felt very confident that he could step in and do the job defensively, and provide good offense. And he's certainly proven to do that."

Fans worried whether the Cardinals would miss Matheny's grit, his leadership and his considerable skills behind the plate. And Molina knew it. He heard it. For all the confidence in him within the clubhouse and the organization, he was aware of doubts outside Busch Stadium.

That made his first full season all the more satisfying. Molina didn't dazzle with the bat, hitting .252 with a .295 on-base percentage and .358 slugging percentage. But after a .162 average in April, that constituted a nice recovery.

And then there was the defense, which was exceptional by any measure. He dominated opponents' running games, throwing out 25 of 39 would-be base stealers (64 percent). Cardinals pitchers posted a 3.37 ERA with Molina behind the plate, as opposed to 3.70 with other catchers. Overall, the Cards led the National League with a 3.48 ERA, a figure in which Molina definitely takes some pride.

"It made me happy, because not a lot of people believed in me," Molina said. "They doubted my ability. We worked great this year and we found a way to do it and got the prize."

Having a look at the big league game, especially with Matheny mentoring him, helped Molina be ready to take the reins this year. His willingness to take charge of the game stands out, especially for a 23-year-old. It's something he always had in the Minors, but watching Matheny helped him feel comfortable doing the same thing in Major League games.

"Mike was a great leader last year and the years before," Molina said. "I just want to be like Mike. I want to be there for the pitchers. I want to be strong for them. I want to be like Mike, the same leadership, the same catching style. I want them to feel comfortable with me. I just want to be a leader."

There is little doubt that he has done that.

"You could tell that he was mature above his years and he knew what was going on," Carpenter said. "He was very comfortable here. He wasn't afraid to come out and say something to one of the starters, a number of times. He'll come out and give you his opinion and let you know what he thinks.

"This year, he's a huge part of what we've done. He knows what's going on. He studies the hitters. He knows how to call a game. He knows all five of us and how we like to pitch in certain situations and everything else. He's been a huge part of this."

And as far as the Cardinals go, he will continue to be a huge part of it.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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