Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have been the starting pitcher-catcher combination 239 times for the Cardinals, but 15 years ago Wednesday they were together for the first time - as opponents. (USA Today Sports) 

By Rob Rains

The biggest buzz in advance of the game between the Greeneville Braves and the Tennessee Smokies in the Double A Southern League on May 9, 2003 was about a former Cardinals’ pitcher trying to rebuild his career.

Rick Ankiel’s ability to throw strikes had gone astray and on a Friday night in Knoxville, Tenn., he was making his first start at the Double A level as he tried to climb his way back to the major leagues.

Ankiel was wild again that night and although he did later return to the majors, it was as an outfielder and not as a pitcher. That game was 15 years ago Wednesday, played in front of 4.793 fans at Smokies Park, and now is more notable for a reason that had nothing to do with Ankiel.

One of the fans in the park that night was Neil Murphy, and it was his memory that launched a research project. The Greeneville starter opposing Ankiel that night was a 21-year-old prospect for the Atlanta Braves. The catcher for the Smokies, at the time the Cardinals’ Double A affiliate, was a 20-year-old prospect from Puerto Rico.

It was the first time Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina were on the same baseball field at the same time.

“I remember things about games back then but I don’t remember everything,” Wainwright said. “Yadi was not a power hitter back then, so he would not have been a guy I was focused on.

“I knew that we played against each other a couple of times, but I don’t remember him getting many hits off me.”

Complete information from minor-league games from that time is hard to trace because there is now a different statistical database used by the minor leagues which began in 2005. The missing data from previous years is the play by play information, which would have specifically detailed the results of each of Molina’s at-bats against Wainwright.

A box score from the May 9 game shows that Wainwright allowed just three hits and one run over six innings. He did not walk a batter and struck out seven, earning a no-decision in a crazy game the Smokies ended up winning 11-9 on a two-run homer by John Gall in the 13th inning after tying the game with four runs in the ninth.

Murphy remembers one of the hits was an opposite-field single by Molina. Molina was 3-of-4 in the game with two runs scored and one RBI.

The second, and only other time, Wainwright and Molina faced each other was six weeks later, on June 24, in Greeneville. Wainwright was the losing pitcher that night, allowing four runs in five innings. Molina was 0-of-4 in the game but did drive in a run on a groundout.

Wainwright made two other starts against Tennessee that season but Molina did not play in those games.

Six months later, in December, the Cardinals acquired Wainwright in a trade with the Braves, obtaining the young pitcher along with Jason Marquis and Ray King in exchange for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero.

“I think it was Bruce Manno (the Cardinals’ farm director at the time) who called me on the phone and asked me about him and I said I didn’t particularly like him,” said Mark DeJohn, now the Cardinals’ minor-league field coordinator who was the Smokies’ manager in 2003.

“He did not pitch well against us, so the reports were not very good. I could only go by what I saw. He was not the pitcher that he became in Triple A and the beginning of his career with the Cardinals. Obviously the Braves thought the same thing (or they would not have traded him).

“His curve ball wasn’t the same type of curve. It was bigger and loopier and he didn’t throw as hard as he did a few years later. He just matured; it seemed like he got really serious about his career and he just took off.”

The trade came as a surprise to Wainwright, especially with the news that he was going to the Cardinals.

“That was my hardest team to pitch against back then for some reason,” Wainwright said. “I remember facing Potomac a lot the year before in A ball and didn’t have great results then either. Looking back the trade did surprise me because when somebody is dominating is when you usually try to get that guy on your team. I never pitched that well against them but they must have seen something they liked.”

The Cardinals by then already had seen much to like about Molina, especially defensively. He was ranked as the organization’s 10th-best prospect, primarily because of his defense, after just two seasons in the minors.

“I think from the day he signed there was never a question about his defense,” DeJohn said. “He threw well and I think his aptitude for calling a game even then at Double A was ahead of his time. He would call a game and sometimes our guys weren’t able to execute what he wanted.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t have the stuff, but they weren’t used to throwing 2-0 breaking balls or changeups on 3-1.”

Hitting was another story, DeJohn remembered, which is one of the reasons Wainwright does not remember focusing in on Molina during his pre-game preparations.

“If he (Molina) didn’t get a hit in his first at-bat, the next time he came up he would have a different stance,” DeJohn said. “One time he would be closed, the next time open. Sometimes his hands were high, sometimes not. He would change his stance four times in a game, every at-bat.”

A member of both the Potomac team in 2002 and the Smokies in 2003 was future major-leaguer Skip Schumaker, who later became one of Wainwright’s best friends after the two became teammates.

Wainwright remembers “Skip got a lot of hits off me,” but Schumaker, now the first-base coach of the Padres, said in a text message that he did not remember any details about those games.

The details, of course, are much clearer about the Wainwright and Molina relationship once they became teammates. Their first game together as the starting pitcher and catcher was on April 9, 2004, when Memphis hosted Albuquerque. In Wainwright’s Triple A debut, he did not allow a hit in six innings, walked one and struck out six as the Redbirds won 3-0 behind a two-run homer from John Mabry.

Wainwright went on to make 11 more starts that year for Memphis before an injury ended his season in June. It was that same month that Molina was promoted to the major leagues.

Wainwright became a full-time Cardinal in 2006, working out of the bullpen that season. He made his first career start in the majors on April 6, 2007 in Houston and Molina was behind the plate.

Molina has been in the same spot for 239 of Wainwright’s 280 career starts, with more likely to come later this season once both Wainwright and Molina return from the disabled list. Their total now is the most in the majors by a pitcher-catcher combination since Tom Glavine and Javy Lopez were the Braves’ starting pitcher and catcher in 248 games. The 239 games already is a franchise record for the Cardinals, easily surpassing the total for the Bob Gibson-Tim McCarver combo in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fifteen years ago, nobody in the stands at that game in Knoxville had any idea what the future would bring for either Wainwright or Molina.

As he watched the game, however, Murphy was pretty certain about one thing.
“I went home that night and told my wife, ‘I saw a big-league pitcher tonight,’” Murphy said. “It was like a man against boys.”

It turned out he saw a pretty good major-league catcher too.

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