Wainwright and Molina were very familiar with each other long before they made their first start together.
Tomorrow, for the 300th time in their careers, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina will start together as a battery mate, only bested by three other pitcher-catcher combos: Mickey Lolich to Bill Freehan (324), Warren Spahn to Del Crandall (316), and Red Faber to Ray Schalk. That’s three Hall of Famers (Faber, Schalk, Spahn), a player who may have made the Hall if framing existed in his time (Freehan), a player who stayed on the HOF ballot for all 15 years possible (Lolich), and Del Crandall. Actually Crandall had a better career than Schalk, Schalk belongs nowhere near the Hall of Fame, but that just gives you an idea of what it takes to be on this list.
When this all started, Adam Wainwright had already thrown to Yadier Molina many, many times. The first time Wainwright ever threw the ball to Molina was probably soon after Wainwright arrived in the trade that brought him to St. Louis in spring training of 2004. Wainwright was 22, Molina was a year younger. Neither had played a major league game yet.
Molina beat him to the punch. On June 3rd of that year, Molina made his MLB debut. I don’t believe he was ever sent back down to the minors. Wainwright took a bit longer. He lasted just 12 games in AAA in 2004 before being shut down for the season. He spent most of 2005 in AAA too, and he wasn’t particularly good. He was a top #50 Baseball America prospect from 2002 to 2004, but his injury-riddled 2004 knocked him out of it, and I’m sure his 2005 made him even less of a prospect at the national stage.
Back when most of the 40 man roster actually got promoted in September, Wainwright was among that group. In a game started by Matt Morris, Wainwright made his MLB debut on September 11th, 2005. Molina had been removed from the game, because the Cardinals were losing 4-0 in the 8th. Albert Pujols was also removed at the same time. Seems a little early to give up on the game, but alright.
The Cardinals scored two runs to bring it to 4-2, and Wainwright was brought in to pitch to Einar Diaz in the bottom of the 8th. It’s hard to say how his debut would have gone with Molina as catcher, but I think it would have gone better than it did. Why do I say that? Well, he allowed a leadoff single to Kazou Matsui. Matsui stole second and made it to third on a throwing error by Diaz. Does Matsui even steal if Molina’s behind the plate? He then walked Carlos Beltran and got two lineouts. Then Beltran stole second base. Wainwright allowed a three-run homer to put the game out of reach.
Tony La Russa didn’t find the time to put Wainwright in another game until nearly two weeks later. In something that would never happen now, Chris Carpenter started and was allowed to give up a 6-2 lead in the 5th inning. He then stayed into the game in the 6th with a now tie game of 6-6 and gave up a two-run double before finally being taken out. Wainwright pitched in a 9-6 game and pitched a 1-2-3 inning to yes, Molina.
Now, this is where the story is going to have some assumptions. Wainwright made the Cardinals out of spring training in 2006, but as a reliever. He pitched in 61 games, 75 innings. I am not going to find out how many of those games were to Molina. What I can tell you is that his first MLB strikeout – yes he didn’t strike anyone out in his two appearances in 2005 – was thrown to Molina.
A curveball would better represent Wainwright as a first K, but as a battery mate? Pitch-perfect first strikeout right there. An impeccably located fastball, aided by impeccably framing by Molina. With no box to tell us and a not particularly great camera angle, it’s possible that’s not quite in the strike zone. I kind of want to believe it’s just on the outside of the strike zone in fact.
Molina was there for Wainwright’s first save too. In another thing that couldn’t happen now, Tyler Johnson replaced Carpenter in the 7th inning. He faced one batter, got him out and ceded the ball to Wainwright. Wainwright walked the first batter, but then got two groundouts. He then got a groundout, strikeout, groundout. The 8th was just a 6 pitch inning and in total, he had thrown just 16 pitches, so he was brought back out for the 9th with a 3-run lead. Groundout, pop fly, groundout. Threw just 24 pitches in 2.2 IP for his first career save.
Fun little thing in there with the announcers saying the Cardinals plan to start Wainwright in the future. By the way five days after his first career save, Wainwright hit his first career home run. Hell of a week he had. And then of course, the 2006 playoffs. Wainwright didn’t get his second career save until September 27th. Easy thing to forget, Wainwright wasn’t the closer until the last week of the season. He got his third save three days later. And then the playoffs.
I don’t need to narrate this part, I’ll just show the videos for you. Wainwright pitching, Molina catching.
All of this happened before they ever officially started together. Wainwright did not start a single game in the majors up to this point. You would have thought he’d find himself as a spot starter at some point, but no. He only appeared in relief. And if the entire rotation except for Carpenter didn’t leave the team, who knows if he would have been moved to the rotation. And Carpenter got hurt in his first start in 2007.
Unfortunately, there is no video that I can find of Wainwright making his first ever start. The extremely useful MLB Film room has every video I’ve posted and then some from the 2006 season, but nothing from the 2007 season that features Wainwright. In fact, Wainwright doesn’t appear in a video until 2013. That’s kind of odd. Clearly the archives didn’t save his first ever start.
Here’s another fun fact. Wainwright’s first start was the fourth game, which means he was the 4th starter. Carpenter was the ace, okay fair enough. In front of Wainwright was Kip Wells and Braden Looper. Game 5 was Anthony Reyes. (It is entirely possible Wainwright wasn’t ready by game 2 or 3 and wasn’t thought of as the 4th starter, but I find it funnier if he was lower on the rotation pecking order than Kip Wells.)
They faced the Houston Astros, who as most of the people reading this know, were in the NL Central at the time. His opposing pitcher was Wandy Rodriguez, who I remember being extremely frustrating to face. It featured an Astros lineup that will forever be etched in my memory for those times, not because of this particular start, just because of the rivalry at the time. Craig Biggio, Mike Lamb, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Chris Burke, Luke Scott, Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus. With the exception of Scott, these guys will always be Astros to me. They were terrifying and my enemy.
In a start that perhaps has too many walks to be a classic Wainwright, Wainwright nonetheless threw a gem. He struck out 4 and walked 3. He allowed just one run across seven innings. At the time, Wainwright wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher, so a sign that his stuff was working was that he was getting groundballs. And his balls in play were 16 groundballs, just four flyouts and one lineout. He exited the game with a 3-1 lead and the Cardinals held onto that lead for a 4-2 victory. It was the first win of the season.
And the rest, as they say, was history. The crazy thing about reaching 300 starts is it could be more. Easily. He missed two and a half months in 2008. He missed the entire 2011 season. He made just four starts in 2015. Just eight starts in 2018. Wainwright was injured a lot. Life of a pitcher, as they say. But even so, a pitcher of Wainwright’s caliber with perhaps more “normal” injury luck probably pitches more?
Of course that speaks to the difficulty of anyone ever approaching 300 starts together. Think about it. You need a catcher and a pitcher to both come up at the same time. You need them both to be good enough to become fan favorites who the front office wants to continually keep. They have to both age reasonably well. Matt Carpenter, for example, would probably be a Cardinal next year if he didn’t fall off a cliff. Only takes one guy to fall off a cliff for this entire thing to be ruined.
And, perhaps most importantly in the modern age of baseball, both have to stay healthy enough to make 300 starts. That’s 30 starts a year, for 10 years. Wainwright is in his 16th year, Molina in his 18th. Wainwright didn’t even become a starter until Molina’s fourth year in the bigs. So you need both pitcher and catcher to roughly arise at the same time, make most of their starts up until they hit free agency, they need to both re-sign with the team to avoid that, and last at least another four years past free agency with the same team. Oh yeah and you can’t have any injuries or you need more years to do it.
I don’t think anyone is going to approach 300 for a very long time, if anyone ever does it. In 2nd place among active players, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, features two players who are no longer teammates and probably won’t be again. In 3rd place is Molina and Carlos Martinez. How wild is that? And in fourth place is Eduardo Rodriguez, who is a free agent in a couple months, and Christian Vazquez, who has a club option for 2022 and then is set to hit free agency. They are at 104 starts together. Like the top contenders here are probably pitcher-catcher duos who either just made the majors or will make the majors soon. Think Adley Rutschman and whoever. Or hopefully Ivan Herrera and whoever.
So here’s to hoping they Wainwright decides to return and that they break that record and make it an unbreakable record.
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