Advice from Yadier Molina went a long way with Willson Contreras

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Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had nothing but good things to say about Cubs counterpart Willson Contreras. (John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star via AP)

ST. LOUIS — Yadier Molina has 10 years of age on Willson Contreras.

Oh, and 12 years of big-league experience, seven All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, nearly 13,000 innings behind the plate and — after the St. Louis Cardinals catcher signed a three-year, $60 million contract extension Sunday afternoon — many digits before the decimal point in his bank balance.

Not to mention the two World Series championships Molina has under his belt, to Contreras’ measly one.

But, hey, who’s counting?

Certainly not the Cubs’ 24-year-old catcher. As promising a player as Contreras is, he’d be delighted just to begin down a similar path as the one Molina has blazed. “El Hombre” is what Albert Pujols used to be called by some around these parts, but Contreras knows Molina is the man.

“He is the best,” Contreras said. “Yadi and [Kansas City’s] Salvador Perez are my favorite catchers. I love watching video of those two guys. I’ve been learning a lot of things from them.”

In the case of Contreras and Molina, some of the learning — and direct teaching — has happened in person. It began last June in Contreras’ first career start, at Wrigley Field against the Cardinals.

The first time Molina came up to bat, he surprised Contreras with kind words.

“You look great,” Molina told him, speaking Spanish. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re going to be an All-Star someday.”

This was the side of Molina fans don’t get to see, the giving nature with young players that has made him such a difference-maker beyond his own performance. Many opposing players — former Cubs catcher Welington Castillo being one of them — have their own stories of being encouraged by Molina during games early in their careers.

Not many of them, though, got the “All-Star” treatment.

“That made my day,” Contreras said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

But it was as Molina dug in for his second at-bat that Contreras could hardly believe his ears. Molina had been watching the spry, aggressive, rocket-armed Contreras from the dugout — seen him fire the ball down to second base before each inning — and noticed a flaw in the technique of a player who didn’t start catching until the age of 20.

“You have to get your glove from your left side to your right ear to make the transfer,” Molina told him. “Don’t worry about it, just practice it. You’ll see.”

Contreras had heard similar advice from coaches a couple of times before, but now — coming from Molina — he took it as gospel. Late in the game, after he gunned down Matt Carpenter on an attempted steal of second, Contreras had to stop himself from looking into the Cardinals’ dugout to catch the eye of one of his heroes.

“That advice was right on,” Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello said. “I hadn’t worked with Willy much at all because he’d just come up [to the majors], and that was one of the first things I told him during that Cardinals series. I showed him video and said, ‘See how your exchange is too low and it takes too long to get the ball out?’ He said, ‘You’re right. Yadi told me that yesterday.’ It made my job easier, for sure.”

If Molina isn’t entirely the player he once was, it can be hard to tell. In 2016 he hit .307 and — at 34, truly a marvel — led all of baseball with over 1,200 innings caught. But the player Cardinals GM John Mozeliak calls the “centerpiece” of the team isn’t convinced he’s the most talented catcher in the National League Central.

“I see how much talent [Contreras] has,” Molina said. “He has great talent. He’s going to be a great player.

“As far as last year, I just wanted to give him a little encouragement. I still do. He deserves it. I just want him to do good.”

Rivalry? What rivalry? Contreras is pulling for Molina, too.

“I hope he plays a lot more years because I appreciate that guy,” he said. “I’m thankful to Molina. He’s a really nice guy.”

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.



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