June 3, 2004: Molina gets two hits, throws out first baserunner in his debut game

A muscle strain that literally took Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny’s breath away opened the door for 21-year-old Yadier Molina to make his major league debut and – as the third member of the catching Molina brothers to reach the majors – make a little history as well.

On June 2, 2004, Matheny was removed in the fourth inning of the Cardinals’ 5-3 win over the Pirates due to a muscle strain in his right side. The veteran catcher had been battling the strain approximately a week but aggravated the injury while swinging in his first at-bat of the game.

Matheny said the injury made it difficult for him to throw the ball back to the pitcher and even to breathe, a detail that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said “is not a good sign.”[1]

“Any time Mike Matheny mentions anything to me and has to come out of a ballgame you treat it as a significant problem,” Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg said.[2]

With the potential for Matheny to be out an extended period, the Cardinals needed either Molina or fellow farmhand Matt Pagnozzi to complement 30-year-old Cody McKay, a career minor leaguer who entered the season with just two major-league appearances. The Cardinals opted for Molina, who was batting .310 with one homer and 14 RBIs in 36 games with Triple-A Memphis.

“He’s the right guy,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “It’s a great opportunity for him and a great opportunity for us to see what he can do.”[3]

Memphis manager Danny Sheaffer, himself a former catcher, woke Molina at 11:30 the night before his debut to give him the good news. In turn, Molina called his brothers Bengie and Jose, both of whom were playing for the Angels.

“They just told me to keep working hard and … just keep working hard like in the minor leagues,” Molina said.[4]

For his part, Matheny said he had enjoyed working with Molina that spring and had been looking forward to seeing what he could do in the big leagues.

“I wasn’t necessarily excited about seeing it this year,” he joked, “but I’m going to do everything I can to help him.”[5]

With Yadier’s promotion, the Molinas became the first family in Major League Baseball history to have three brothers catching in the league at the same time. There were just four previous sets of brothers catching in the majors at the same time – Bill and George Dickey, Mike and Bob Garbark, Ray and Red Hayworth, and Gus and Frank Mancuso.[6]

“We knew he was going to make it, but we never thought it would be this quick,” Jose Molina said. “I know my mom and dad are real happy. I’m really happy for our family. There’s not another word to describe it. We’re just happy.”[7]

La Russa wasted no time in getting Molina into the starting lineup, pairing him with Woody Williams, a 37-year-old, 12-year major league veteran who had posted a career-high 18 wins for the Cardinals in 2003. Willams’ 2004 campaign, however, had gotten off to a rough start. The right-hander from Houston had lost his first three decisions of the season and didn’t pick up his first win until May 11. Williams had earned his second win of the season in his previous outing, a 10-3 Cardinals win over the Astros, and entered the month of June with a 5.19 ERA.

Williams and Molina enjoyed a quiet first inning, as Williams worked around Pirates catcher Jason Kendall’s leadoff single by striking out Daryle Ward and Craig Wilson.

In the top of the second, Scott Rolen doubled down the right-field line and advanced to third on a sacrifice fly by Hector Luna. With two outs, that brought Molina to the plate against Oliver Perez for his first career at-bat. On a 1-1 count, Molina hit a pop fly into short right field that landed in the glove of Pirates second baseman Abraham Nunez for the final out of the inning.

Nunez almost scored the first run of the game in the bottom half of the second. With two outs, Nunez singled to right and advanced to second on a walk to Tike Redman. Oliver Perez looked to continue the inning with a single to right field, but Reggie Sanders’ throw home beat Nunez, and Molina dove to apply the tag and end the inning. A photo of Molina’s bare-handed tag of Nunez by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Freed accompanied Rick Hummel’s recap in the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“He’s got so much composure,” La Russa said of Molina. “He plays like he’s got 10 years of experience.”[8]

In the top of the fifth, Molina tagged Perez for the first hit of his career, a line drive into the left-field gap. One batter later, So Taguchi hit into an inning-ending double play that maintained the scoreless tie.

The Cardinals didn’t get on the board until the top of the sixth. After Williams flied out and Tony Womack struck out looking, Edgar Renteria doubled over the head of Redman in center field. Albert Pujols was hit by a pitch and Scott Rolen, returning from a fastball to the head that had held him out of the previous game, followed with a two-run double to right.

With the Cardinals ahead 2-0, Molina led off the top of the seventh with a double down the left-field line. Taguchi laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Molina to third and Williams hit a sacrifice fly to center to bring Molina home.

“That was fun, huh?” Molina said. “I was just trying to get one hit, but I got two and we got a win.”[9]

The Cardinals used three pitchers to get through the bottom of the seventh. After Bobby Hill and Nunez each singled, La Russa replaced Williams with Steve Kline. The lefty retired Jason Bay on a pop fly, then gave way to Julian Tavarez. Tavarez got Randall Simon to fly out to Molina, then retired Kendall on a ground ball to get out of the inning.

An RBI double from Sanders in the top of the eighth made the score 4-0 before the Pirates threatened again in the bottom of the eighth. Jack Wilson led off the inning with an infield single, but attempted to steal on a 1-2 pitch and became the first base runner to fall victim to Molina’s arm.

Ward walked and Craig Wilson doubled to left field, prompting the Cardinals to replace Tavarez with Ray King. With runners on second and third, Rob Mackowiak hit a sacrifice fly to deep center to score Ward. Jason Isringhausen entered the game in relief of King, and the first batter he faced, Bobby Hill, reached on an error that allowed Wilson to score.

However, Isringhausen would strike out Nunez to end the inning, then worked around a ninth-inning single by Chris Stynes to earn the save.

Most of the ninth-inning fireworks actually came in the top of the inning after Pittsburgh reliever Mike Gonzalez brushed back Tony Womack with two outs in the inning. La Russa, who already was irked by a fastball that came up and in on Rolen, shouted at Kendall. Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, angry at La Russa for yelling at one of his players, raced out of the dugout and both benches and bullpens emptied.

“Lloyd was saying, ‘Don’t yell at our players.’ I said, ‘Would you rather we hit somebody in the head or yell?’ I’d rather yell than hurt somebody,” La Russa said. “Yell at your pitchers to get the ball down.”[10]

La Russa and McClendon both were ejected from the game.

With six scoreless innings, Williams moved to 3-5 on the season and dropped his ERA almost half a run. After the game, he had nothing but compliments for his rookie catcher.

“He did a good job,” Williams said. “He pays attention. I’m sure he was just floating. It’s a special day for him and I’m sure it’s something he never forgets.”[11]


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals might call up Molina,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 2004: Page D5.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals might call up Molina,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 2004: Page D5.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Oh, brother! The Molinas are making history,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2004: Page D12.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Oh, brother! The Molinas are making history,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 2004: Page D12.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Sweeping developments,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

[11] Rick Hummel, “Molina excels in major league debut,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 2004: Page D7.

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