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Molina, Cardinals hold off fading Cubs again, 2-1

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, right, celebrates with teammates at the end of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

CHICAGO — Make room in the encyclopedia of reasons Yadier Molina is headed for Cooperstown.

Call this chapter the Cracker Jacks game.

As in, do you remember what the Cardinals catcher did to the Cubs after Jason Heyward’s foul tip caught him in the cup?

“When you get hit in the (Cracker Jacks), it’s going to take you awhile,” Molina said after he shrugged off the pain to stay in a game that wound up covered with his fingerprints.

A reminder of the magnitude of Friday’s 2-1 Cardinals win came from none other than chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. as he climbed the staircase to the renovated Wrigley Field visitors clubhouse the Cardinals are suddenly feeling awfully comfortable in.

“Big win,” DeWitt said before he greeted manager Mike Shildt with an enthusiastic fist-bump.

Occurring along the series of ramps and stairs the chairman navigated to reach the clubhouse was a live look at the state of the National League Central.

Those in blue shuffled out of Wrigley knowing their season, and maybe more, was likely lost.

These Cubs were supposed to be a dynasty.

Now the Cardinals are back on top, just like Molina expected them to be when his social media spat with Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant poured gasoline on a rivalry that had leaned in Chicago’s direction since the 2015 postseason.

“To win that game and play as bad as we did?” a Cardinals fan said to another as the mass of humanity moved toward the exits. “That’s a minor miracle.”

More like another Molina miracle.

“We’re blessed,” Shildt said.

Where to start?

Right here, where Molina’s day could have ended.

No one would have questioned Molina if he’d exited the game after Heyward’s fourth-inning foul tip brought the catcher to his knees. Remember, we’re talking about a man who just last season had to have emergency surgery after a similar incident. This looked scarily similar. Molina’s stomach wasn’t the only one in knots.

“I’m good,” Molina told the umpire, the trainers, Heyward and anyone else who came to check on him.

He repeated it until it was true.

He got back behind the plate and helped starter Michael Wacha end the inning with two pitches after Heyward walked.

“If you’re going to have a tap-out contest,” Shildt said, “you’re not betting on him (to tap out). There are warriors. And then there are gladiators. Whatever that is, he’s every bit of that. That’s the toughest, smartest guy I may ever know.”

Simply finishing the game would have been impressive.

Molina instead found a way to likely finish the rival he loves to beat — even if he wont’ admit it.

“We don’t care about anyone else,” Molina said. “It’s just us. We came over here (to Chicago) to play one game at a time, to try to concentrate on ourselves, to try to play the best baseball we can. We don’t care who we are facing.”

In a game that could have been defined by opportunities squandered — the Cardinals mustered only four hits, stranded 12 and went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position — it was Molina who delivered.

After falling behind 0-2 to former Cardinals teammate Steve Cishek with the bases loaded in the sixth, Molina evened the count and sent the submarine-style reliever’s sinker back up the middle and into center field, scoring the only two runs the Cardinals needed.

“Just trying to put it into play,” Molina said.

Cardinals not named Molina went one-for-27 Friday. Molina went three-for-four, raising his batting line through the last month of games to a .324 average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .510 slugging percentage.

Here’s another number to know.

Since Molina returned on Aug. 13 from a thumb strain that required a stint on the injured list, the pitching staff he shepherds has produced baseball’s lowest ERA (2.81). The Braves are in second place — at 3.61.

On Friday, Molina helped five relievers through scoreless appearances after Wacha allowed one run in four innings. For the 89th time in 101 starts this season, he did not allow a single stolen base. And when closer Carlos Martinez fell behind Ben Zobrist 1-0 with one on and two outs in the ninth, Molina made a trip to the mound to settle his unpredictable teammate. He then framed two low pitches for called strikes before Zobrist tapped into the game-ending groundout.

Molina will be back behind the plate Saturday. He’s sniffing the postseason, and playing like it. He shifts to another gear when he knows his team has a chance to win big. It will never not amaze those who pay attention. It will help lead him to the Hall of Fame one day.

“It feels like every day, something happens, where it’s like, man, I thought this guy was good, and here he goes, showing us how good he is one more time,” reliever John Brebbia said. “And one more time. And one more time.”

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