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A curve, a keepsake, some Cherry Coke: How Cardinals Wainwright and Molina made history

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and their team’s chances of nabbing the No. 2 spot in the National League playoffs. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Harry Windsor. And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

The brink came quickly in the first inning when Adam Wainwright sensed this momentous game teetering. He drew confidence from all his experiences with the Cardinals in meaningful games, all the times he trusted the exacting pitch Yadier Molina called to get a key out, all the previous starts they’ve made together — 324 of them to be precise.

The Brewers, desperate to chew one more game off the Cardinals’ lead, had base runners at the corners and their cleanup hitter at the plate all before Wainwright had a second out. Some of the sellout crowd at Busch Stadium on Wednesday remained on their feet, standing only for the end of that record-setting first inning.

Wainwright and Molina had the record.

This moment would determine if they had the game.

“I thought, ‘I’m getting out of this because we’re supposed to win today,’” Wainwright said hours later. “We’re supposed to win.”

“We had the mindset to win, no matter what,” Molina said.

A Champagne toast and a Cherry Coke shower awaited Wainwright and Molina after striking out that cleanup hitter, tiptoeing through traffic for five innings Wednesday and winning, 4-1. Molina had the go-ahead RBI single in the second inning as he and Wainwright established a major-league record two careers in the making. The two Cardinals started together for the 325th time, moving ahead of Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan for the all-time lead as a battery. They will continue to add to their total in the coming weeks, even though it’s unlikely another pair comes close to challenging this forever record.

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright tips his cap to Christian Yelich for taking Wednesday's first pitch and describes the Busch Stadium reaction to the history he and catcher Yadier Molina made together.

At 6:46 p.m. St. Louis, Wainwright delivered an 87.2 mph sinker to Brewers leadoff hitter Christian Yelich. He was taking history the entire way.

“I had no intention of swinging at the first pitch, you know,” Yelich said. “They deserve that moment, that respect to have that ball. You allow them to have that ball and do whatever they want with it, rather than, you know, swinging at it and who knows what happens. Just wanted to make sure that they had the ball.”

Like so many pitches before it, the baseball went from Wainwright’s fingertips to Molina’s mitt. But then it went straight to the home dugout for authentication before its next, pre-plotted destination.

The five innings Wainwright (11-9) spent in the game were embroidered with such ceremonies. As he warmed up, he described “constant chills, tearing up and just trying to manage my adrenaline because it just wanted to go through the roof.” Molina was moved by the ovation that followed his walk in from the bullpen. Both Wainwright and Molina caught themselves watching a video compilation of their highlights together — snapshots from teammates who became friends who became family in the years since that first start in April 2007. They are so close they call each other “brother” despite spending the majority of their careers 60 feet, 6 inches apart.

Wainwright swapped jerseys after every inning so a hologram sticker could be applied and its number recorded for authenticity. In the first two innings, Molina wore a specially painted helmet with his jersey number on one side, Wainwright’s on the other and their number of starts together on top. For two champions in their 40s who have defied time, the mask illustrated how they warped math, too: 50 plus 4 equals 325.

After the game, the team gathered in the clubhouse, Champagne bottles with “325” on the side were passed out, and several people spoke. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. addressed the team as did John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. Manager Oliver Marmol spoke about the ingredients that go into such longevity — the talent, the commitment but also the “real losses” they’ve shared along with “some World Series together.”

Waino and Molina set new major-league history with 325th start as batterymates

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) goes to work in the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, at Busch Stadium. Wainwright (50) and catcher Yadier Molina (4) took to the field for the 325th time as a major-league battery, breaking the record set in 1975 when Detroit' Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan got to 324. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Then the two honorees were plopped into laundry baskets and wheeled into the shower for the traditional sweep-the-kitchen swamping. They were doused by a mix of Cherry Coke, Sprite and maybe, Wainwright said checking the corners of his lips, there was some apple juice in there.

“You see me, right?” he said, his Cardinals hoodie soggy at the postgame news conference. “Do I look wet? I’m wet. I am soaked. A whole bunch of nasty stuff you don’t want on your head, but it’s a pretty sweet taste.”

Part of the confidence Wainwright felt as the first inning went sideways came from the comfort he felt at home, at Busch Stadium.

“There was a guiding force in having it here,” he said.

Just as there’s been several keeping him and Molina there.

Friends close to Molina said part of what brought Molina back for his age-40 season and back from his knee injury in June was the chance to set a major-league record with Wainwright. Wainwright joked recently that Molina has given him gifts and he’s given the catcher only “headaches.” This year, he helped give Molina reason. That comes not too long after Wainwright signed a series of incentive-laden, one-year contracts to stay with the Cardinals and prove himself, again. All because he couldn’t imagine wearing a different jersey.

“For me, I would feel weird going somewhere else,” Wainwright said. “I would look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I belong here. This is where I belong. This is where I should have been. This is where Yadier should have been and has been. This is just home for us.”

Cardinals, Brewers at Busch

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina enter the field together for the 325th time, setting the battery record against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

While so much of Wednesday’s start focused on the past that got them to the record, Wainwright had an immediate future on his mind.

Including the win against Milwaukee, Wainwright has pitched five innings and no more in three consecutive starts. He’s allowed 26 hits in those 15 innings and admitted to stretches where he hasn’t felt sharp. After Wednesday’s game, Wainwright said he “would never admit it at the time,” but he has been dealing with a “dead arm phase.” Common in spring training, it’s a description pitcher use when the arm and hand lacks liveliness, pitches feel less animated. Command can falter. Marmol said he feels “we’re on the way out of it, rather than in the middle of it.”

Wainwright identified a glitch in his delivery that had his arm lagging behind his legs as he moved toward home plate. He spent a bullpen session focused on correcting that and entered his start feeling better.

“Better,” he affirmed. “Still not great.”

With 325 starts facing Molina now behind him, Wainwright has only a handful left to feel “great” before the playoffs begin. Through four innings Wednesday, he had stranded eight runners on base, joking he “left a big village on the base paths.” Milwaukee tagged him for two singles that put him in a bind in the first inning. He struck out Hunter Renfroe to clear an escape route, and he did with a soft ground ball back to him. The Brewers took a fleeting 1-0 lead in the second after starting the inning with back-to-back singles but stalling on a sacrifice fly. In the fourth, Milwaukee again loaded the bases on Wainwright and failed to add to their total.

A one-out single in the third could have sparked another threat if not for Molina and Wainwright doing what they’ve done so many times before.

Their signature skills blended for a pivotal out, like longtime bandmates easily finding the harmony to play their hit.

Cardinals, Brewers at Busch

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher catcher Yadier Molina wears a custom mask with his and Adam Wainwright's number on the sides, as the battery starts together for the 325th time, setting the record against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

With former teammate Kolten Wong at first, Wainwright missed on a series of cutters to Andrew McCutchen. He found his way back into the at-bat with a curveball, and then came to a full count. With more plate appearances than any active player against Wainwright, McCutchen had a good idea what was coming. He got the curve. Wong blitzed toward second base. McCutchen swung over sharp break. Molina backhanded the pitch so that he could be moving toward second to deliver a strike that beat Wong by a stride. Molina wagged his finger. The record-setting start and its calling-card play.

“It felt coming into this game, you’re just going to win it,” Marmol said. “You don’t know how. But you’re going to win it. It’s just supposed to work out that way.”

The start record began as curiosity several seasons ago as it became clear that Wainwright and Molina had the club record and were close to topping Tom Glavine and Javy Lopez. Now it seems improbable to think any duo will ever come close to 325. With one more start, Wainwright and Molina will have 100 more than only other contemporary tandem with more than 200 (Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, at 226). The two Cardinals already have three times as many as the second-most active tandem (Kyle Hendricks and Willson Contreras), and the longevity is so rare that Jack Flaherty and Molina rank in the top five active, at 69.

Batteries aren’t supposed to have this kind of shelf life.

Wainwright had a plan for what to do with the first baseball he threw of the start, but what he did not know is what would become of the ball when it left his hand.

Yelich, a former MVP, could foul it off or, worse, launch it to the seats where Wainwright wasn’t sure if he would want it back. He praised Yelich for taking the pitch, not even flinching as it whistled by for a strike. That gave him the treasure he wanted.

He had that record-making baseball taken to be cut exactly in half.

One for him.

One for Molina.

Something for them, like history, to share.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the Cardinals' chances -- real, or happy talk? -- of running down the Mets and Braves.

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