SAN DIEGO – Mets right-hander Seth Lugo, in his own words, was “sick as a dog,” battling a cold that four or five Puerto Rican players were dealing with, according to manager Edwin Rodriguez.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina heals the sick, raises dead arms and performs virtual hypnosis on pitchers in the World Baseball Classic, turning an average Puerto Rican staff into one that is heading to the final round for the second straight tournament.
Lugo, 27, is a legitimate major-league starter who must now be considered a favorite for a spot in the Mets’ rotation. The Mariners’ Edwin Diaz, 22, is a potential elite closer. But the entire staff plays follow-the-Molina.
“Even if I don’t think it’s the right pitch, his conviction to it, and his setting up on the plate, it just gives you that much more confidence in the pitch,” Lugo said. “It’s unbelievable throwing to a guy like that.”
And so it was that Puerto Rico on Friday joined Japan and the Netherlands in the WBC’s final four, defeating Team USA, 6-5. in a game that ended with an Edwin Diaz strikeout of Josh Harrison with the tying run on third base.
Lugo started and allowed three runs on 5 2/3 innings, but for Puerto Rico, the story was Molina. The story is always Molina – and before we forget, he contributed offensively as well, going 1-for-4 with an RBI.
Molina, 34, helps arrange the Puerto Rico rotation. He runs the pitching meetings. He suggests pitching changes to Rodriguez and pitching coach Ricky Bones, noting when pitchers are tiring, thinking ahead to matchups the following inning.
“He’s part of the decision-making,” Puerto Rico general manager Alex Cora said. “He’s been studying these teams for like six months already. It’s a joke. He was asking for rosters, like, six months ago. I was like, ‘Dude, how about the Cardinals?’”
Actually, Molina was obsessing over the tournament before that.
“He thought that the WBC was in 2016,” Rodriguez said at a recent news conference. “He was sending me, in 2015, lineups and everything. So I had to tell him, ‘Yadi, there’s two more years to go.’”
Forgive Molina for being hellbent on avenging Puerto Rico’s loss to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 WBC final. He and his teammates are playing as if on a mission, with a 5-0 record thus far in the tournament.
Their road back to the final will not be easy – Twins right-hander Jose Berrios, 22, will be the likely starter in the semi-final, with Lugo returning on normal rest if Puerto Rico reaches the final, Rodriguez said.
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Lugo is as unlikely a hero for Puerto Rico as Molina is an enduring star. The pitcher, a native of Shreveport, La., speaks no Spanish. He visited Puerto Rico for the first time only last month. But he was eligible for the team because his paternal grandfather is Puerto Rican, so here he is.
“Playing with all these guys, it’s unbelievable,” Lugo said. “Growing up in Louisiana, my team was the Rangers. My favorite players were Pudge (Rodriguez) and Juan Gonzalez. I was always cheering on the Puerto Rican players. Playing with them and for them, it’s awesome.”
Lugo entered the spring in a supposed competition with Robert Gsellman and Zack Wheeler for the final spot in the Mets’ rotation. But in the WBC, he has allowed only three runs in 11 innings against the powerful Venezuela and Team USA lineups. How can the Mets possibly justify sticking him in their bullpen or in Triple A?
Wheeler, who threw well in his most recent Grapefruit League start, still could start the season in extended spring training. Matt Harvey, coming off thoracic outlet surgery, also is not a lock to open in the majors; the Mets want to see how he fares in his final two spring starts.
For now, Lugo has other concerns.
“I try not to read the stuff online. It’s both positive and negative,” he said. “I stay away from all that. I haven’t really been keeping up with how the guys are going there. I’m just focusing on these guys right now.”
Molina demands nothing less, but he said after the win over the U.S. that he had no idea that Lugo was ill. Rodriguez asked Lugo before the game if he could make the start. Lugo said yes, leaving no doubt he would take the mound.
“He was sick? I didn’t know that,” Molina said. “That’s how tough he is. He didn’t let the emotions get to him. He didn’t let anybody see that he was sick.”
Molina is human medicine, anyway.
In 2013, Puerto Rico’s starters were Nelson Figueroa and three others who never reached the majors – Orlando Roman, Mario Santiago and Giancarlo Alvarado. This time, the starters are Lugo, Roman, Berrios and Jorge Lopez. And the bullpen isn’t exactly star-studded, either.
Again, no matter.
Cora, the Astros’ bench coach, recalled a game four or five days before the WBC in which the Marlins’ Martin Prado was hitting rockets all over the field against Houston.
Prado, in his first game for Venezuela in the WBC, went 0-for-3 with two groundouts and a strikeout. Lugo started that game as well, an 11-0 victory. But to Cora, the difference was Molina.
Yankees third base coach Joe Espada, a coach for Puerto Rico, said Molina is “the difference in this tournament … the captain of this team.”
Molina, plays the same role for the Cardinals, but he is a potential free agent at the end of the season. Negotiations on a contract extension are expected to resume once the WBC is completed.
At the moment, Molina said, a new deal is the last thing on his mind.
“In this type of tournament, everything comes with pride,” Molina said. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t play the same way with the Cardinals, because you do. But coming from Puerto Rico, having that name on your chest, you’re playing for your family. It’s a different feeling.”
Two more victories, and he will experience the feeling of Puerto Rico’s first WBC title.