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Molina lights up on playoff stage

Molina lights up on playoff stage

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ST. LOUIS -- A clean slate. Every player is granted one at the start of the postseason, but no one benefited more than Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals catcher struggled mightily the entire year, hitting just .216. At times, the slow-footed backstop would hit some bad luck or lose a hit on a great defensive play.

During the last month of the season, a new problem cropped up. Molina started pressing. His at-bats and pitch selection suffered, yielding a .138 average (4-for-29) in the last 10 days of the season.

"He is a proud hitter and he kept on trying to get three hits every two at-bats, and he was working too hard to force hits," manager Tony La Russa said. "He was thinking, 'I get two or three hits for 10 days and I raise my average 30 points.' It's impossible to hit that way."

All numbers returned to zero when the postseason started, and that helped tremendously.

"I think when he got to the postseason, he started 0-for-0, and with that fresh start, he has been more himself," La Russa said.

The new Molina is even better than the offensive force that hit .267 and .252 in his first two Major League seasons. Next to his good friend and reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols, Molina has morphed into the Cardinals' best postseason weapon. In eight postseason games, the catcher is scorching opposing pitching, hitting .385 with a homer and five RBIs.

"Yadier is a competitor and has really good talent," David Eckstein said. "I have played with both of his brothers, and they say that he is the best one of all of them. He definitely has shown it throughout the regular season, and now he is putting it all together and he definitely has the ability to do that. I am not shocked at all."

It's also transformed the bottom of the lineup. Instead of having an offensive black hole and yielding two quick outs in the 8-9 spots, the Redbirds are putting pressure on the opposition and driving in runs.

"Just getting to the pitcher so we can restart the lineup ... that has been something that has really been huge. And in these situations, the more pressure you can put on the opposing pitcher, it poses another threat to the lineup," Eckstein said. "Yadier has really done well and swung the bat fantastic."

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Mets pitchers, including Game 2 and 6 starter John Maine, have also taken notice of Molina's ability.

"He's had a great series," Maine said Monday afternoon. "He's been hitting the ball. It's going to be another task, pitching to him. You have to make good pitches and keep the ball down in the zone."

Molina, though, doesn't want to talk about his offensive turnaround, instead focusing on winning ballgames, helping the pitching staff and shutting down the other team's running attack.

"If we win, it's a perfect night. If I go 0-for-6, 0-for-7, if we win, then that's a great night for me," Molina said. "My defense is more important to me."

That defense -- including his cannon arm that threw out the highest percentage of basestealers among NL catchers during the regular season -- has short-circuited the Mets' running game. Jose Reyes has created little havoc on the basepaths, forcing New York to hit-and-run with its No. 2 man, Paul Lo Duca.

"What he does behind the plate is far more important than what he does at the plate," Eckstein said. "He has to control everything, and he's such a force back there that they have to take note of that. From what my experience is, he is one of the best catchers in the game, especially with the way that he can throw the ball and handle the pitching staff."

Still, the playoffs have seen another dimension of Molina -- a dimension that was only possible with a clean slate.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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