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Monday, June 16, 2008

Molina's toughness defines '08 Redbirds

By Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz
Sports Columnist Bernie Miklasz
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Yadier Molina was face down in the dirt, not moving or stirring, as the silent thoughts and prayers came down from every corner of Busch Stadium to cover him.

The Cardinals' catcher, the hardest steel of their inner core, was collapsed in a heap.

And at this accident scene, no one knew what to do, what to think.

The catching gear couldn't provide the armor to protect Molina from the blind-side hit at home plate, with Philadelphia's Eric Bruntlett crashing into Molina's back in the top of the ninth inning and the score tied 6-6.

Bruntlett had nowhere to go. There was no other path leading to the go-ahead run and a series win for the Phillies. But you knew that Molina wasn't about to concede an inch of territory. You knew he would not flinch as he reached for and handled first baseman Chris Duncan's low throw to the far side of the plate. Molina had to sense what was coming, even if he couldn't see it. He had no time to turn and brace for the impact. So Molina held his ground and put his body in harm's way. He knew he'd get clobbered.

As manager Tony La Russa said, Molina's a tough man.

Bruntlett did what he had to do, except bring the tank required to dislodge the baseball from Molina's vise. And when these cross purposes met at the intersection of Blood and Guts on Sunday afternoon, Molina still had an unbreakable grip on the baseball and the 6-6 tie.

Before Molina put his head down, before his brain began spinning in the throes of a mild concussion, he raised his hand to show the ball to umpire Tim McClellan.

And over the next few minutes, the fans didn't breathe much as they watched Molina get fastened to a stretcher and carted off the field.

"How he held onto the ball, I don't know," said pitcher Ryan Franklin, who watched from the mound. "But I do know there's no way he was going to let go of it."
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Molina wasn't around to see the Cardinals win it for him in the bottom of the 10th, taking advantage of a Philly error, a Troy Glaus single and another error to prevail 7-6. The home team had blown a 5-1 lead. And their beloved catcher had been relieved of his senses — if not the baseball.

And still, they won.

They won to improve to 42-29. They won to make their record 15-3-5 in series played. They overcame Friday's 20-2 loss to the Phillies to win the series. And when Molina wouldn't budge, that was the play of the summer, the play that told you all you needed to know about what drives the 2008 Cardinals.

Maybe, just maybe, down deep the Phillies knew it was time to go home instead of trying to outlast La Russa's stubborn maniacs. You had the feeling that it would have taken a few more ambulance rides to the hospital to get the Cardinals to back down.

"We've taken some hits, but we can't curl up and die," reliever Kyle McClellan said. "We've got to fight and that's what we're going to do."

Even after Molina's last stand, the Cardinals had work to do. Franklin had two outs and the bases loaded and squared to face the excellent Chase Utley. Franklin thought of Molina.

"I mean, just seeing that happen right there, that gets my adrenaline going even more," he said. "... That kind of builds more fire inside of me and I want to get him out."

Utley was retired on a routine fly ball.

Then prodigal son Anthony Reyes returned from the minors to retire Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Geoff Jenkins on 10 pitches in the top of the 10th. And then the Cardinals watched the Phillies defense break down, plating the winning run.

La Russa was almost folksy afterwards He said he wanted to go "pat the boys on the back" for winning the game, the series.

The game ball goes to Molina. Just don't try to take it from him.

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