When Albert Pujols rejoined the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022 after a subpar 2021, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, it was a nice feel-good story that Pujols, 42, would be reunited with long-time former Cardinals teammates catcher Yadier Molina, 39, and pitcher Adam Wainwright, 40, in the hopes of recapturing past glory and winning one more World Series. Pujols and Molina had already announced they would be retiring after this season. No announcement has been forthcoming about Wainwright’s status, but one suspects he might be saying farewell, too.
Come, writers and critics
The Milwaukee Brewers were favored to win the National League Central Division running away. Experts had them at 100 wins. I never thought the Cardinals could overcome them on the strength of a warm and fuzzy reunion of aging teammates. I’m glad I don’t bet on my intuitions about baseball. Heading into action on Saturday, September 17, the Cardinals sit alone atop the division at 85-60, 7.5 games ahead of the Brewers, a virtual lock for the division championship. Not discounting the contributions of other star players like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, one notes Pujols, Molina and Wainwright have been major contributors in their own right.
Pujols, it was thought, was acquired to occupy the designated hitter spot against left-handed pitching and spell Goldschmidt at first base on occasion. By the end of June, he’d appeared in just 40 of his team’s 77 games. He appeared more frequently in July. In August and September, he’s been in the lineup almost every day. As of this writing, he’s batting .264/.337/.528, 19 HR and 53 RBIs in 2022.
The loser now will be later to win
On Friday night in St. Louis, the Cincinnati Reds had what looked to be a comfortable 4-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning. Against relief pitcher Raynel Espinal, Goldschmidt doubled and came home on an Arenado single. One out later, Pujols launched career homer number 698 deep into the left field stands, a towering blast off a slider that caught too much of the middle of the strike zone. Now tied at 4-4, the Cardinals went on to win, 6-5.
My back pages
The heroics of these three individuals are a familiar, if not tiresome, sight to this Pirates fan. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, I hated the Philadelphia Phillies and the Big Red Machine. Now I’m older and hopefully wiser, just barely wise enough to stop hating the opposition for doing their jobs. So it is with begrudging admiration I compose this paean to Molina, Pujols and Wainwright.
Not that they’re difficult to root for, mind you. Pujols is an evangelical Christian, outspoken about his beliefs. Wainwright is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, equally open about his faith. Molina is more like a guy I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Molina can be an intimidating figure, walking to first base alongside an opposing batter who just got plunked by a pitch, just in case he had any ideas of charging the mound. I live my life by three rules: Never take financial advice from somebody who’s trying to sell me something, never fry bacon with my shirt off and don’t mess with a guy who has a neck tattoo. Yet opponents seem to like Molina. In the Cardinals’ last visit to Pittsburgh, I saw Molina congratulate Pirates catcher Tyler Heineman on a throw to second base that nailed a Cardinals runner.
It was in Pittsburgh
Oh, that last visit to Pittsburgh! The weekend looked promising at the start with an 8-2 Pirates win on Friday, September 9. But Pujols and Molina saw to it there would be no more celebrations in PNC Park for the weekend’s duration.
On September 10, Pujols was a one-man wrecking crew, going 3-for-4 with three RBIs and career homer number 696. In the sixth inning with the Pirates ahead, 3-1, Pujols stepped to the plate with a man on base and one out. He crushed the first pitch from starter JT Brubaker down the inviting left field line, where the wall veers sharply from the deeper part of left field, to tie the game.
The Pirates went ahead, 4-3, in the seventh, but in the eighth it was Pujols’s turn again. With two outs, Nolan Gorman doubled off reliever Robert Stephenson. Pujols drove Gorman in to tie the game again with a well-placed single between the middle infielders.
Leading off a tie game in the ninth inning against Wil Crowe, Molina hit a ground-ball single up the middle and exited the game in favor of pinch runner Lars Nootbaar. Nootbaar bluffed a dash to second base. Second baseman Rodolfo Castro took the bait, moving toward the base just enough so Paul DeJong‘s shallow pop fly landed where only a normally stationed Castro could have caught it. Crowe managed to retire the next two batters without the run scoring. Then the trouble began. Goldschmidt walked to load the bases after an epic nine-pitch battle. Arenado followed by lining a double deep down the left field line to score all three runners and put the Cardinals up, 7-4. The final score would be 7-5 after the bottom of the ninth inning produced only a Bryan Reynolds solo homer.
Of course, Arenado got all the glory as the hero of the game. But let’s reconstruct the Cardinals’ ninth assuming Molina makes an out. Castro is then in position to catch DeJong’s ball, the side is retired without Goldschmidt and Arenado coming to the plate and the Pirates win in the bottom of the ninth. Clearly, a Cardinals victory doesn’t happen without Molina’s single.
Over his 19-year career, I’ve seen Molina seemingly get one clutch hit after another. He’s been a guy who I don’t want to see at the plate against the Pirates in important situations. Analytics have discounted the value of “batting average in clutch situations” as a measure of one’s worth in big situations. The theory behind it is if Player X is a lifetime .220 hitter with a “clutch” batting average of .300, the clutch plate appearances are merely a small sample size that don’t produce a reliable indicator. Player X can’t make himself a better hitter just because he’s batting in a clutch situation. If all of his at-bats occurred in clutch situations, he’d hit .220 in those situations.
I can buy that reasoning. However, I do believe there are some players who are better at staying relaxed and within themselves with the game on the line. Former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle used to call them “slow heartbeat” guys. Molina is clearly one of those guys.
Doin’ it again
So is Pujols. Back to the weekend in PNC Park. On September 11, the Pirates began the ninth inning leading, 2-0, with Chase DeJong, no relation to Paul but recently a reliable arm out of the bullpen, on the mound to close it out. Right away he gave up consecutive doubles to Tommy Edman and Corey Dickerson. Now with the Pirates holding a slim 2-1 lead, “Prince Albert” stepped up. Almost predictably, Pujols smacked a long home run to center field, the deepest part of PNC Park, to win the game for the Cardinals. It was career home run number 697 for Pujols, passing Alex Rodriguez and placing him fourth all-time. After the game, the woman who retrieved the ball tried to give it to Pujols, who graciously told her to keep it when he learned her father had recently passed away.
See the master’s hand
I haven’t forgotten Wainwright. Last Wednesday, he and his 10-9 record took the mound in Milwaukee in the second game of a two-game set. The Brewers had won, 8-4, on the previous night. A sweep of the series by the Brewers would tighten the race and give them some hope, however little.
Since returning from 2011’s Tommy John surgery, Wainwright is more a crafty pitcher then a hard thrower. He rarely throws a straight pitch any longer. His four-seam fastball usage is only at 9.2 percent. Primarily he throws a curveball, cutter and sinker. At 88.7 average MPH, the sinker is the hardest pitch he throws. In an era that values velocity and who’s blowing up Statcast, Wainwright is an anomaly, an outlier.
Fans of the cerebral side of baseball should have enjoyed watching Wainwright pitch on Wednesday. Over five innings, he threw 98 pitches and surrendered eight hits and two walks. But all of the hits were singles and he let only one runner score, leaving with a 3-1 lead that held up, the Cardinals eventually winning 4-1. Wainwright did it by masterfully refusing to throw fastballs in hitter’s counts, keeping the batters guessing and off balance when he needed crucial outs. It was a performance the likes of which I’ve seen many times from Wainwright. I won’t be surprised to see more of the same from him with a division title in sight.
In the third inning, the Brewers’ Kolten Wong was caught stealing during a glorious sequence where Wainwright, knowing his former teammate’s tendencies, teamed up to deliver a pitch that struck out Andrew McCutchen while simultaneously being placed right where Molina could handle it, pop out of his stance and deliver a bullet to second base.
It’s not a slam dunk that the aspirations of Molina, Pujols and Wainwright will come true in 2022. The Los Angeles Dodgers will have much to say about that come October. But I won’t be placing any bets against these Cardinals.