Indeed, a Cardinals team that has touted its retooled defense and infusion of young talent relied on one of its long-standing pillars Monday. With a home run, a pair of dazzling defensive plays and his help in navigating a pair of young pitchers through a rocky eighth, Molina lifted the Cardinals to a 1-0 win at Great American Ball Park and left the Reds to endure their first Opening Day shutout since 1953.
"It was kind of his game today," Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said of Molina afterward, "and I was lucky to be a part of it."
Wainwright played a starring role, too, in covering the first seven innings of what would become not only his first Opening Day win, but career victory No. 100.
He was insistent that he open the season with a strong outing. Not because of the expectations swirling around the defending National League champions. But because of a shortfall that sat with him all winter.
"It was me wanting to go out there and set the tone better than I did in the World Series," Wainwright said. "I was thinking about Game 1 in Boston, and I knew that I did not pitch the way I could have or should have. I wanted to come out here and pitch a good game and set the tone for the rest of the season moving forward."
Reds starter Johnny Cueto was nearly as good and traded zeros with the Cardinals' ace until Molina turned on a first-pitch fastball in the seventh. The veteran catcher, who drew the loudest boos from a sellout crowd of 43,134 fans during pregame introductions, elicited more when he deposited the pitch 368 feet over the left-field wall.
The home run marred an otherwise excellent start from Cueto, who struck out eight and had stranded the only other runner to reach scoring position against him. Eliminate Matt Adams' pair of hits and the Cardinals were 0-for-19 before Molina's mighty swing on a misplaced cutter.
"I wanted to throw it for a strike," Cueto said, with Tomas Vera translating. "He was really waiting for that pitch. He was really aggressive, and you know what happened."
"He threw me something in the middle," Molina added, "and I put a good swing on it."
That positioned the Cardinals, now 9-8 against the Reds on Opening Day, to win their season opener for the fourth time in the last five years. That included a 2010 victory at Great American Ball Park in which Molina connected for a grand slam.
This time, one run would do, though it took nifty relief work to ensure the Cardinals didn't squander away the lead upon Wainwright's departure. It took a relief corps of four to garner the final six outs thanks to some ragged defense.
The Cardinals committed three errors in the game, including two during an adventurous eighth.
Pat Neshek opened the inning by walking Brandon Phillips, the only batter he faced. Kevin Siegrist came in to face the Reds' pair of potent left-handed bats in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce and watched a potential double-play ball hit by Votto skip past second baseman Kolten Wong. Phillips, representing the tying run, moved to third.
"I tried to do too much instead of doing what I've practiced," Wong said.
The Cardinals erased Phillips in a rundown on Bruce's fielder's choice and then turned to Carlos Martinez to wrap up the inning. He, too, induced a possible double play, from Ryan Ludwick, only to watch it pop out of the glove of first baseman Adams. A strikeout of Todd Frazier finally ended the inning.
"It was pretty impressive to watch some of the young guys pick them up," manager Mike Matheny said. "They continue to come in and make good pitches despite what's going on behind them, [the errors being] what I believe is going to be very uncharacteristic for our club."
Trevor Rosenthal followed with an uneventful ninth to pick up his fourth career save.
"We stayed calm," Molina said. "You see those young guys in the bullpen. They don't care about what happened out there. They trust themselves."
It all made a winner of Wainwright, who was making his third official Opening Day start (one other had been rained out). He issued an atypical four walks -- last season he opened the year with 34 2/3 walk-free innings -- and went to seven three-ball counts but said afterward that he felt in control through the entirety of his 105-pitch outing.
He was plenty effective when around the strike zone, limiting the Reds to three hits over seven innings. The Reds advanced three runners into scoring position; none made it as far as third. In two of those instances, Molina closed the inning by pouncing on balls hit just in front of the plate.
"He was obviously amped to get going," Matheny said of Molina. "And he's always looking for that little edge, something that he can do to turn the tide of a game."
Wainwright's biggest potential bind came in the fifth, when Peter Bourjos ran down Brayan Pena's hit to the left-center gap only to watch it pop out of his glove for a two-base error. Pena was erased on a botched sacrifice bunt, and Wainwright followed with two consecutive strikeouts to close the frame.
Wainwright finished the day with nine strikeouts, the most by a Cardinals pitcher on Opening Day since Pete Vuckovich had nine in 1980. Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton struck out four times.
"It's never easy," Molina said. "We're facing a good team over there. But Waino is amazing. He can control everything. He can do what he wants to."
His batterymate, having just watched Molina place his fingerprints all over the outcome, returned the compliment.
"I'm very biased, obviously," Wainwright said. "But I really think he's the best I've ever seen at that position."