The issue I have with nostalgia is it makes people sentimental. Having a deep conversation with anyone is right next to “root canal” on my list of things that I actively avoid. If you’re going to melt into a puddle of tears, I need a 5-foot buffer minimum, and I’m going to slowly back peddle to the nearest exit.
So when the Cardinals announced Albert Pujols was coming back for one last ride with the old crew — basically just Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright — I recoiled in horror, and I’m a Cardinals fan. I fully expected this season to be a never-ending barrage of dopey retirement gifts and average baseball, with maybe a playoff win, but definitely not a division title, to dot the top of the sundae.
I could keep my distance, and let the rest of the St. Louis fans wipe tears and snot on each other as they enjoy mundane swan songs while I divest interest and coldly move on as men are supposed to do. And that plan lasted through the All-Star Break, and right up until the point that Pujols started hitting home runs that matter as much to his pursuit of No. 700 as they do to the team’s pursuit of the NL Central.
Like a tune you can’t get enough of, I must’ve rewatched the two-run shot he hit against the Cubs last weekend a dozen times. Pujols needs five more homers to enter the exclusive 700 home runs club, and it’d be awesome if he got there, but it’s not a record.
However, the other two-thirds of the old guys on the roster are going to stand alone, atop the mound where they’ve had so many chats behind mitts before. Molina and Wainwright tied the MLB record for starts as a battery Thursday with their 324th together. The next time they take the field, Sept. 14 at home against the Brewers, they’ll break the record set by Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and Bill Freeman.
It’s not a particularly famous record, and it’s almost more of an oddity than a true testament of greatness, but it is representative of Cardinals’ baseball for the past 15-plus years. Molina and Wainwright steadied a rotation and a staff as well as any pitching coach ever could. There are only two years, out of the 17 they’ve been on the roster together, that the team’s ERA was higher than league average. It may not be the most awe-inspiring stat, but it does mean something.
They’ve also reached the postseason 11 of those 17 years, and they’re likely to make it 12 this season. If you’re petty like me, you point out that Molina’s 12 postseason appearances and Wainwright’s injury-affected nine are still more than Pujols’ eight.
While the what if surrounding Pujols is the more obvious one to the casual baseball fan, the what if regarding Wainwright’s torn Achilles played just as big of a part in the trajectory of the team. Prior to the injury, which came during a plate appearance (and was the only time I was envious of the DH), Wanio had made the All-Star game three out of four years, and notched 19-plus wins four out of five.
In the years following, his ERA hovered in the fours, although he’s been in the low threes the past few seasons, and even hurled a few gems in the playoffs. (All of which were for naught thanks to anemic run support.)
Part of Cardinals Devil Magic — the phrase coined in 2012 to describe the Red Birds’ ability to win games they weren’t supposed to — was due to the team’s ability to get the best out of journeymen pitchers. Molina would coax confidence out of Kyle Lohse or someone of that ilk and bridge the gap until it was the ace’s turn. (Usually Wainwright.)
That formula hasn’t worked in the playoffs lately, but the fact that a rotation more-or-less headed by Molina and Wainwright is still making it to meaningful October baseball tells you all you need to know about those two. The funny thing about the duo since Wainwright returned from injury in 2015 (he pitched in the playoffs the same season he tore his Achilles) is every now and then they’ll just throw it back, humming along through innings and hitters like it’s 2013.
As far as positive feelings goes, the comfort of Wainwright painting canvases that Molina has framed for him has been more pervasive than any other during their long, storied, and now historic tenure. They also now have a capstone to the career highlight reel that started when Wainwright was coming out of the bullpen and striking out Carlos Beltran in the NLCS all those years ago.
Of the many grudges I hold against Pujols that have admittedly been fading this year, I think what bothers me most is this isn’t his team anymore. It’s belonged to Molina and Wainwright since he left, and they’re more deserving of the curtain calls that have been coming seemingly at every home game. So I couldn’t be happier that their names will be etched atop a record book.
It’s hard to set an all-time mark in baseball. Doing anything the most in a sport that’s been running so long that records are disputed due to a lack of paperwork takes as much luck as it does talent. For Molina and Wainwright, their luck and talent just so happened to cross paths at a serendipitous moment 324 times.