JUPITER, Fla. • Deep into the game that may come to define his time with the Cardinals, Chris Carpenter faced Ryan Howard and fell behind the Philadelphia Phillies slugger, three balls to no strikes. The Cardinals led the deciding Game 5 of the National League division series, 1-0, and catcher Yadier Molina sensed Howard would swing for a tie on the next pitch.
Sitting at his locker Wednesday at the team’s spring training complex, Molina recalled how he peered out at Carpenter and urged caution.
Carpenter gave him a telling glare.
“We have got that thing on the mound, out there, where we can communicate (with little gestures),” Molina said. “His was like, ‘So what?’ He threw it down the middle. Pop-up. With a 3-0 count. He saw me and just started to laugh. It was, ‘OK, OK, he’s on it. He’s got this.’ That’s Carp.”
Howard’s fly out was the first out of the seventh inning and it was Howard who made the last out in the ninth as Carpenter finished a 1-0 win, a winner-take-all shutout at Philadelphia that catapulted the Cardinals toward their World Series title. That was the first of Carpenter’s four wins that postseason, and that night is the only time in all the years they’ve spent as a battery that Molina celebrated a clincher of any type by rushing toward Carpenter’s arms. Usually it’s been a closer waiting for him.
That night in Philadelphia it was Carpenter who caught Molina.
“One of the great moments in my life,” Molina said Wednesday.
The Cardinals are unsure if Molina will ever catch another pitch from Carpenter, the former Cy Young Award winner and veteran ace of the team. The club announced Tuesday that Carpenter has experienced a recurrence of the numbness, tingling and weakness that settled in his right shoulder a year ago and cost him most of last season and led to midseason surgery. General manager John Mozeliak said Tuesday at Busch Stadium that while Carpenter will explore his medical options it is “unlikely” Carpenter will pitch in 2013, and the future of his career is in doubt.
Molina, who caught in 158 of Carpenter’s 197 starts for the Cardinals, called it “sad news for us, sad news for me.”
“We’re talking about the relationship between pitcher and catcher and, yes, he helped me a lot,” Molina said. “It was easy for me when you see a guy who when he’s pitching that night he’s there at 1 p.m. watching video, preparing himself, trying to know the other guys. It helped me out when you see a guy like that who all he wants to do is win. I feel the same way. Every time you get two guys who want to win, they’re going to work pretty well together.
“Carp made my job easy.”
Molina, who has an offseason home in the Palm Beach County area, has been coming to the Cardinals’ facility for workouts as next week’s official start to the team’s spring training approaches. Carpenter was expected to be there any day now, working out as well. An official said the club does not know if Carpenter will join the team in Jupiter, even if it’s to aid as an instructor or mentor. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said that he would be eager to have Carpenter work alongside him and sit in with the coaches in an office adjacent to the clubhouse.
Lilliquist suggested he would let Carpenter have his chair.
“Having that parallel peer pressure and presence here is invaluable,” Lilliquist said. “For the young guys we have here to have a role model like Chris who has been there, done that, pitched in the biggest games, been on top of the baseball world — that’s invaluable. It’s great for the young kids we’re going to count on to see, watch, and hear his experiences.”
That’s what Molina did.
Brought to the majors at 21, Molina made his fourth start – his first career start at Wrigley Field – in Carpenter’s seventh win of that season. He struck out six, walked none and held the Cubs to three runs in 81/3 innings. Molina said observing Carpenter helped him shed any youthful hesitation in his game. He said Wednesday that Carpenter taught him “the importance of body language.”
“Every time you see him on the mound, it’s not about intimidating, but he has that presence on the mound that intimidates,” Molina said. “That’s the way you want to play this game. The opponent has to respect you. Every time you see him pitching that’s what he showed. He showed confidence. He showed he’s going to do whatever it takes to win the game.
“Sometimes when you’re young, when I was 21 or 22, sometimes you get afraid to do some things on the field,” Molina continued. “You don’t when you’ve got a guy like him who has been around and shows you 100 percent confidence on the mound. He’s like, ‘I don’t care who is hitting. I don’t care if it’s Babe Ruth or (Mark) McGwire hitting here, I’m going to get that guy out.’ He taught me that mentality. He taught me to be like, ‘I don’t care who it is, let’s go after him.’”
Molina walked out to the gated parking lot that’s right outside the Cardinals’ side of Roger Dean Stadium and passed a car that’s been there for a few days.
Count Molina among those who hope Carpenter follows.
“The young pitchers learn from watching Carp, by watching how he works, by watching how we go after it. That’s what Carp means to me,” Molina said. “If you see Carp winning, the other pitchers are going to know how to win. It’s the same thing with a catcher. When you see Carp win one game, you want to do the same thing with (Jake) Westbrook, with Waino (Adam Wainwright), with Jaime (Garcia), with everyone. He means a lot to us. We’re going to miss him. ...
“Losing a guy like that – a guy like him – is tough.”