ST. LOUIS — They each lived the fairy tale. One began as a Thirteenth-round draft selection and ended because the only player ever with 700 home runs, 3,000 hits and multiple World Series titles. The opposite, the child brother in a family of major league catchers, grew as much as earn 10 All-Star selections and nine Gold Gloves, enough to cover his left arm with tattoos of every.
The slugger, Albert Pujols, returned this season for a ending flourish after a decade in California. The catcher, Yadier Molina, never left. Together they played 31 seasons and greater than 4,000 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. The birds on the bat might as well be named Albert and Yadi.
Now, alas, these birds have flown. They went out with singles, each bringing the go-ahead run to the plate within the late innings while facing elimination within the wild-card round. Surely there needed to be one other thrilling chapter, the Cardinals thought. Surely the story wouldn’t end.
“There was just a lot magic happening with Albert and Yadi,” said pitcher Adam Wainwright, the third venerable Cardinal from the championship years. “I just felt like: you’ll be able to’t exit like that. There’s an excessive amount of goodness going around to lose two games in a row.”
Yet that’s the way it ended, with a 2-0 victory by the Philadelphia Phillies — in the sport and the series — that ushered Pujols and Molina into retirement. It was the primary playoff series victory for the Phillies in a dozen years, and the primary time in a full season that a division winner didn’t even reach the division series.
For that, the Cardinals could blame baseball’s revamped playoff format. One division winner per league must play in the brand new, best-of-three wild-card round. The opposite first-place finishers — those with the higher records — get a bye.
The American League Central winner, the Cleveland Guardians, dumped the Tampa Bay Rays in two games. However the Cardinals, who won the National League Central, hit .185 and went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position against the Phillies. That’s how fairy tales end.
“We didn’t hit the ball, that’s it,” Molina said. “It is hard to lose this fashion, but we fight till the tip.”
Molina threw the last punch. The setting — down by two runs, with a runner on and two out within the ninth — will need to have felt familiar. A decade ago, facing playoff elimination in Washington, Molina got here up in the identical spot and walked to maintain the season alive. This time, off Zach Eflin, he lashed a single to right and left for a pinch-runner.
Pujols had done the identical within the eighth, singling and leaving for a pinch-runner, hoping that a teammate could do the remaining. That point the Cardinals’ best players, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, each fanned against Seranthony Domínguez. Within the ninth, Tommy Edman popped out to 3rd to finish the sport. Pujols didn’t linger long within the dugout.
“I just sort of took a moment, perhaps lower than 15 seconds, and walked within the clubhouse,” Pujols said. “There’s nothing to be sad about. It’s a part of the sport in baseball. I’ve been on the opposite side, too, where you have a good time and win. I’d somewhat be on that side than this side, nevertheless it wasn’t meant to be for us this yr.”
Pujols, 42, did his best. He reached the All-Star break with a .215 average and 6 home runs, not surprising from the oldest player within the majors. Within the second half, though, Pujols surged to .323 with 18 home runs. He finished with 703 profession homers — trailing Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — and only Aaron ever drove in additional runs.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, what I saw this yr with him, with any player,” Arenado said. “I’m just in awe of his presence and the way in which he goes about his business. Never seen a harder employee at that age.”
Molina, 40, was a solid hitter but a unprecedented catcher, born to play the position of his brothers, Bengie and Jose. Molina used technique and wisdom to excel, earning trust from his pitchers and provoking conviction of their decisions.
“He’s a game-changing player, but he’s just an excellent teammate and friend and leader on this team,” said Wainwright, who made 328 starts with Molina catching, essentially the most for any battery in major league history. “He brings a relaxing presence that’s hard to switch. That’s a really, very necessary position, and he’s controlled his staff and the clubhouse nearly as good as anyone could.”
Folks here like to count homers — every Cardinal fan now thinks of Pujols once they dial the Northern Virginia area code — but numbers miss the purpose with Molina. Baseball Reference gives him just 42.2 wins above substitute, fewer than several catchers who are usually not within the Hall of Fame, like Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan and Jorge Posada.
Yet inside the game — and particularly in the house clubhouse here — Molina is a lock for Cooperstown.
“How often are you able to say you played with two first-ballot Hall of Famers?” Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas said. “How often does that occur?”
Mikolas took the loss on Saturday, allowing only two hits but each of the Phillies’ runs, the primary a 435-foot homer by Bryce Harper. That was enough for starter Aaron Nola, who blanked the Cardinals into the seventh inning, just as Zack Wheeler did in Game 1. The bullpen wobbled a bit — these are the Phillies, remember — but got here through ultimately.
For Phillies fans, it was delayed revenge for a 2011 playoff loss that sent the team sliding for a decade. That yr, the Cardinals were the wild card and clinched with a shutout in Philadelphia. This time, the Phillies were the wild card and clinched with a shutout in St. Louis.
And perhaps that’s fair, in some sense, since the truth is that Pujols and Molina didn’t need one other chapter. That they had already written everlasting stories, regardless of what happened this October. There was nothing left to prove, they usually knew it.
“I enjoyed each moment; there’s nothing to regret,” said Pujols, adding later, “The memories, being around my teammates, the fans, spring training, the crack of the bat day-after-day — those are things that you simply miss.”
That was as wistful as Pujols got by his locker after the sport. He insisted he had not considered sharing a stage on the Hall of Fame with Molina in 2028, the primary yr they’re eligible for induction. That may make them teammates again, symbolically, but for Molina, the bond with Pujols couldn’t possibly be stronger.
“I’m going to be his brother ceaselessly,” Molina said. “You may’t ask for more.”