Eyes on Molina when he catches A.J.
Combination could stick for rest of postseason if it succeeds
NEW YORK -- It was early in a midsummer game when A.J. Burnett approached his catcher, Jose Molina, and began complaining about his unwieldy pitch count. Burnett was frazzled.
Rather than commiserate, though, Molina simply glanced at his batterymate and grinned.
"Throw 10 pitches the next inning and you'll be all right," he cracked.
And just like that, Burnett visibly relaxed.
"He was laughing, and then after that, he was a lot better," Molina said.
How relevant such stories have become, now that contention has filtered its way into Yankee Stadium and tapped Molina on the shoulder -- just in time for Friday's American League Division Series Game 2 against the Twins at 6:07 p.m. ET on TBS. Jorge Posada may remain unhappy following manager Joe Girardi's decision to play Molina, and not Posada, on Friday evening, but the Yankees must proceed.
|Gm. 1||NYY 7, MIN 2||Wrap||Video|
|Gm. 2||NYY 4, MIN 3 (11)||Wrap||Video|
|Gm. 3||NYY 4, MIN 1||Wrap||Video|
They must, as Burnett does, put their trust in Molina.
"The manager is Joe," Molina said. "If he writes down my name, I will play. I'm ready. If Jorge don't like it, that's him."
In 16 starts throwing to Posada, Burnett held opposing batters to a .270 average, going 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA in those games. In 11 starts with Molina, Burnett was 5-2 with a 3.28 ERA, with opposing batters hitting just .221 off him.
Odds are good that Posada will play at some point in Friday's game -- it's been four years since he didn't start a playoff game, back when John Flaherty regularly caught Randy Johnson in 2005, and a full decade since he didn't play at all. The catcher that day for Game 3 of the 1999 World Series against the Braves was Girardi.
So there's a scant bit of precedent, if that's any consolation.
"I'm not jumping for joy here," Posada said. "But I accept it."
The result, to date, has been a violent shove toward the spotlight for Molina, who otherwise has spent his days as a serviceable and quiet backup. He is unassuming, the way most backup catchers are. In his locker is an old magazine cover featuring his brother, Yadier. Next to that is a painting depicting the three Molina brothers, all in different uniforms. Down below are various photographs of family and friends.
Molina is nearly as excited to see his brother, Yadier, in the postseason with the Cardinals as he is for himself. But all this attention? For him? For a backup catcher?
It just seems a little foreign.
"You guys have to understand that the one that has the ball is the pitcher," Molina said. "He's the one to decide what he's going to throw. We just suggest what the pitch could be. But when a pitcher has something in mind, he's going to throw it no matter what."
Though Girardi wouldn't say whether Molina will continue to catch Burnett throughout the postseason, it's a good bet that the Yankees will stick with those two if they continue their recent success on Friday.
Right now, though, it's uncomfortable for Molina. All the attention, all the questions, it's just not him. Right now, too, it's uncomfortable for Posada -- that dugout bench can be a lonely place in October. But the Yankees are winning games and their $82.5 million No. 2 starter is happy, and it's awfully difficult to justify fiddling with that kind of success.
|"The manager is Joe [Girardi]. If he writes down my name, I will play. I'm ready. If Jorge [Posada] don't like it, that's him."|
|-- Jose Molina|
"Sometimes, personalities and the way you do things behind home plate just match up," Girardi said. "That pitcher-catcher relationship is a very important relationship in the game of baseball, and that's why we're choosing to do this."
In 10 big league seasons, Molina has never faced a firestorm quite like this. His older brother, Bengie, has always been the best Molina hitter. His younger brother, Yadier, has always been the best Molina fielder. Jose has always been the middle child, Mr. Mild-Mannered, a backup by trade and rarely anything more.
Prior to this postseason, Molina's claim to fame was his home run in the final home game of the 2008 season, the last long ball to clear the old Yankee Stadium's walls. Back then, he was playing nearly every day due to Posada's recovery from midsummer shoulder surgery. It was a fine situation, but a temporary one.
There were no expectations back then, with the Yankees preparing to pack their bags and return home to an unhappy October. Now, though, there is pressure. All eyes will face Molina on Friday, ignoring the fact that this was not his doing.
Molina cannot afford a reprise of 2005, when Flaherty started over Posada in Game 3 of the ALDS. Johnson, the starting pitcher that day, served up five runs and was done after three innings, wreaking havoc on then-manager Joe Torre's best-laid plans.
For Molina, there is only one way to combat that pressure.
"I'm not going to do anything different from what I've done the whole year," Molina said. "It could be good, it could be bad. Who knows? But I won't change."
Molina will merely represent change.
"It'll be kind of awkward not having Jorge in the lineup, you know what I mean?" shortstop Derek Jeter said. "But there's been times we've played in the playoffs and Girardi caught sometimes. There's been games that Jorge hasn't caught this year. Just because he's not starting the game doesn't mean he won't be in it. It'll be awkward, just because you're used to seeing him."
Instead, Jeter will see Molina. And he will see Burnett, in all likelihood, rarely disagreeing with his catcher's signs. Though Molina has taken to brushing off praise of his and Burnett's seamless mound relationship, there certainly is something to it.
How much, exactly, the Yankees are about to find out.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.