Lyle Spencer

Yadi the gold standard of catching

Yadi the gold standard of catching

LOS ANGELES -- The box score, as so often is the case, gives scarcely a hint of Yadier Molina's contribution to the Cardinals' 7-1 victory at the Dodgers' expense on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium.

For that kind of information, you need to consult with the Cards' pitcher. In this case, it was Michael Wacha, who leaned on Molina's wisdom, experience and gut instincts for seven innings leading to his eighth win against one defeat for the team with the best record in the Majors.

"Definitely, you have to trust your catcher -- and who better to trust than Yadi?" said Wacha, the 23-year-old right-hander from Iowa. "We've got full trust in him -- not just me, but the whole staff."

Molina has never won a National League Most Valuable Player Award, a third-place finish in 2013 -- the trophy going to a richly deserving Andrew McCutchen -- the closest he has come to claiming the hardware. But a strong case can be made that Molina has been the league's, and the sport's, most valuable player across the past 12 seasons.

The Cardinals have reached the postseason eight times in Molina's first 11 seasons, and it will be hard to deny them a fifth consecutive October visit and sixth in seven years. The one constant from 2004 to the present time is the man from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who 11 years ago almost to the day, on June 3, 2004, was summoned to replace Mike Matheny.

The club's manager now, Matheny won four Gold Gloves. His successor has taken seven in a row, and good luck snapping the streak.

"You have to have fun," Molina said. "And I'm still having fun doing this. It happened fast. It doesn't seem like 12 years."

Time flies when you're having fun, they say. That seems especially true of Redbirds, who take flight and win as if by habit.

Yadier was the third Molina brother to reach the big time. All along, Bengie and Jose repeatedly had informed anyone who would listen that their kid brother was something special, the best in the family. They weren't kidding.

"That guy is everything to this team," said second baseman Kolten Wong, flourishing in the leadoff role. "He's the leader on the field, the leader of the pitching staff. He takes control of the game to make sure everyone's on the same page. When he says something, you better listen. He definitely keeps this team on track."

Molina will be 33 on July 13, a day before the All-Star Game is played in Cincinnati. Yadi is likely to be on the NL squad, along with Giants centerpiece Buster Posey, the only active catcher who belongs in the same sentence with Molina.

Named to six All-Star teams, Molina missed last year's show after tearing a ligament in his throwing thumb sliding on July 9, requiring surgery.

Molina made it back in time to go to work in the NL playoffs, extending his franchise postseason records to 86 games and 89 hits. But a strained oblique took him out of Game 2 of the NL Championship Series against the Giants, and he was unable to return in time to prevent Posey and the eventual World Series champions from winning three games in San Francisco and taking the series, 4-1.

The Giants have three crowns to the Cards' two during the Molina era, but fans of the heartland will take those eight postseason runs in 11 years, thank you.

Molina has shed some weight -- 20 pounds, he said, attributing it to improved diet -- and looks five years younger. He has not hit a home run this season, but a .280 average and 20 RBIs add to a balanced attack.

The Cardinals are rolling behind their customary solid pitching even though their ace, Adam Wainwright, is out for the season with a torn Achilles and their new setup man, Jordan Walden, is recovering from an injury.

The organization does a tremendous job of locating and developing arms, such as Wacha, a first-round pick, No. 19 overall, in 2012. But at the end of the day and season, it's Molina's care, counsel and abundant skills that keep the Cards at the top of the food chain on the mound. That remarkable MLB-best 2.62 team ERA serves as testimony to Yadi's mojo.

The box score shows Molina going 0-for-3 with a walk against the Dodgers in the opener of a four-game series between the clubs that have met the past two Octobers. There might be someone who frames more strikes or handles a slightly higher percentage of balls in the dirt or in some way convinces the analytics folks he's the new Molina.

Skepticism is suggested. There is only one Yadier Molina, and he's still very much in his element. He's the gold standard, the best there is and one of the very best the game has seen.

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.