ST. LOUIS — They both lived the fairy tale. One began as a 13th-round draft choice and ended as the only player ever with 700 home runs, 3,000 hits and multiple World Series titles. The other, the kid brother in a family of major league catchers, grew up to earn 10 All-Star selections and nine Gold Gloves, enough to cover his left arm with tattoos of each.
The slugger, Albert Pujols, returned this season for a finishing flourish after a decade in California. The catcher, Yadier Molina, never left. Together they played 31 seasons and more 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, both bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in the late innings while facing elimination in the wild-card round. Surely there had to be another thrilling chapter, the Cardinals thought. Surely the tale would not end.
“There was just so much magic going on with Albert and Yadi,” said pitcher Adam Wainwright, the third venerable Cardinal from the championship years. “I just felt like: you can’t go out like that. There’s too much goodness going around to lose two games in a row.”
Yet that is how it ended, with a 2-0 victory by the Philadelphia Phillies — in the game and the series — that ushered Pujols and Molina into retirement. It was the first playoff series victory for the Phillies in a dozen years, and the first time in a full season that a division winner did not 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 new, best-of-three wild-card round. The other first-place finishers — the ones with the better records — get a bye.
The American League Central winner, the Cleveland Guardians, dumped the Tampa Bay Rays in two games. But the Cardinals, who won the National League Central, hit .185 and went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position against the Phillies. That is how fairy tales end.
“We didn’t hit the ball, that’s it,” Molina said. “It is tough to lose this way, but we fight till the end.”
Molina threw the last punch. The setting — down by two runs, with a runner on and two out in the ninth — must have felt familiar. A decade ago, facing playoff elimination in Washington, Molina came up in the same spot and walked to keep the season alive. This time, off Zach Eflin, he lashed a single to right and left for a pinch-runner.
Pujols had done the same in the eighth, singling and leaving for a pinch-runner, hoping that a teammate could do the rest. That time the Cardinals’ best players, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, both fanned against Seranthony Domínguez. In the ninth, Tommy Edman popped out to third to end the game. Pujols did not linger long in the dugout.
“I just kind of took a moment, maybe less than 15 seconds, and walked in the clubhouse,” Pujols said. “There’s nothing to be sad about. It’s part of the game in baseball. I’ve been on the other side, too, where you celebrate and win. I’d rather be on that side than this side, but it wasn’t meant to be for us this year.”
Pujols, 42, did his best. He reached the All-Star break with a .215 average and six home runs, not surprising from the oldest player in the majors. In the second half, though, Pujols surged to .323 with 18 home runs. He finished with 703 career homers — trailing Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth — and only Aaron ever drove in more runs.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, what I saw this year with him, with any player,” Arenado said. “I’m just in awe of his presence and the way he goes about his business. Never seen a harder worker at that age.”
Molina, 40, was a solid hitter but an extraordinary 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 inspiring conviction in their decisions.
“He’s a game-changing player, but he’s just a great teammate and friend and leader on this team,” said Wainwright, who made 328 starts with Molina catching, the most for any battery in major league history. “He brings a calming presence that’s hard to replace. That’s a very, very important position, and he’s controlled his staff and the clubhouse as good as anyone could.”
Folks here love to count homers — every Cardinal fan now thinks of Pujols when they dial the Northern Virginia area code — but numbers miss the point with Molina. Baseball Reference gives him just 42.2 wins above replacement, fewer than several catchers who are not in the Hall of Fame, like Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan and Jorge Posada.
Yet within the game — and especially in the home clubhouse here — Molina is a lock for Cooperstown.
“How often can you say you played with two first-ballot Hall of Famers?” Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas said. “How often does that happen?”
Mikolas took the loss on Saturday, allowing only two hits but both of the Phillies’ runs, the first 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 came through in the end.
For Phillies fans, it was delayed revenge for a 2011 playoff loss that sent the team sliding for a decade. That year, 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 maybe that is fair, in some sense, because the truth is that Pujols and Molina did not need another chapter. They had already written everlasting stories, no matter what happened this October. There was nothing left to prove, and they knew it.
“I enjoyed every single 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 every day — those are things that you miss.”
That was as wistful as Pujols got by his locker after the game. He insisted he had not thought about sharing a stage at the Hall of Fame with Molina in 2028, the first year they are eligible for induction. That would make them teammates again, symbolically, but for Molina, the bond with Pujols could not possibly be stronger.
“I’m going to be his brother forever,” Molina said. “You can’t ask for more.”