Cardinals icons Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina earned baseball's ultimate win: Walking off in their own time

Maybe it’s appropriate that Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina took their final bows in baseball’s last season without a clock. Across 41 combined seasons that began, ended and will be remembered in St. Louis Cardinals uniforms, the duo sped up, slowed down and outright defied the sport’s ticking timer, subliminal but usually ruthless.

Each debuted at age 21 and retired Sunday night as quadragenarians, when the Cardinals fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild-card series. The duo won the World Series together twice, made a combined 21 All-Star Games, and earned 11 Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. Pujols, one of the defining players of the millennium thus far, won three MVP awards, Rookie of the Year and a batting title. They wore No. 4 and No. 5, building an impossibly neat bridge to Stan Musial's No. 6.

Pujols, of course, did something Musial never did (and never had the power to do voluntarily): He left St. Louis. His 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels was a moment that forced baseball to check its watch. It broke the spell of timelessness, and for a decade relegated Pujols to a buoy marking MLB’s shifting tides.

In short order, his move juxtaposed the Cardinals’ constant October appearances with the cruel reality that many players and teams never get even a second in the sun. Pujols watched a similarly prodigious player, Mike Trout, rack up similar excellence and accolades without the postseason shine. Soon enough, another megastar named Bryce Harper rocked the game by moving on from his original team, only to see it immediately romp to World Series glory behind his even more precocious replacement. The duo that worked through a nearly sleepless night at the winter meetings to bring Pujols to the Angels — GM Jerry Dipoto and assistant GM Scott Servais — have found a more joyous second act steering the Seattle Mariners to their first postseason run since 2001.

That year, Pujols was only the second-brightest rookie phenom. As he won NL Rookie of the Year, the Mariners’ riveting Ichiro Suzuki laid claim to the AL award — much like Julio Rodriguez will this season — and led a 116-win team that crashed out abruptly, and then never got back. Baseball’s big unseen clock doesn’t bend to sentimentality or narrative pressure. It doesn’t give equal time, and it will stop without warning.

Numbers of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina will echo through time

The sterling statistical records Pujols and Molina accumulated will settle now — oxidize into distinct patinas on their bronze, Cooperstown-worthy careers.

With Pujols’ exit, there will be new active leaders in games, plate appearances, hits, runs, homers, doubles, RBIs, walks, intentional walks, sacrifice flies, total bases and Wins Above Replacement. The 703 homers will solidify into a memory, and eventually become more familiar to baseball fans than his coiled batting stance or beaming grin.

The numbers will also capture a period of tectonic shifts in MLB.

Winners of the 2011 World Series as a wild-card in the original four-team playoff format, Pujols’ and Molina’s Cardinals are the first division winners to fall before the Division Series in MLB’s new, larger playoff setup.

The changes go deeper. We don’t know exactly how many fastballs Pujols faced in his rookie season, or how fast they were going. By the time he laced that last single Saturday, we had precise measurements of how fast the sinker he hit was spinning, and in what direction. We knew how hard it came off Pujols’ bat, and the top speed he reached on his way to first base for the very last time. In the ways we have learned to compare the eras, we know his OPS was 57% better than average in his rookie year, and a shockingly symmetrical 54% better than average in his unexpected grand finale.

Despite all the leaps forward, the quantitative impact of Molina’s sage presence will stubbornly elusive. When the time comes to assess the stalwart catcher’s Hall of Fame case, we will now have numbers to affirm his excellence at receiving pitches and stealing strikes, but will lack hard evidence of his even more important role calling those pitches and guiding several generations of pitchers to success.

For proof of that, we will have to rely on the reverence of teammates.

How Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina defied baseball’s odds

“There’s just so much magic with Albert and Yadi,” fellow iconic Cardinals 40-something Adam Wainwright said after the game. “It just felt like, you can’t go out like this?”

It was hard not to wonder if Pujols and Molina had one more moment of magic in them. Clawing for one last chance in the final two innings on Saturday's Game 2, Pujols and Molina each notched hits, and then gave way to pinch runners. But the Phillies, who know all about the game's unforgiving clock, threw two towering aces at the Cardinals and earned themselves more time.

They went out in a loss. But it was a loss at the end of a glorious victory lap that so few are afforded.

Pujols appeared to be limping into the sunset as recently as last summer in Anaheim. After a rough start to his return season in St. Louis, he reportedly considered calling it a day in June. Then he made adjustments at the plate and turned in a vintage second half that included his awe-inspiring run up to and beyond 700 homers. Molina, along with Wainwright, broke the all-time record for most games by a single battery combination and shepherded another team to another NL Central crown.

The best players on this year’s St. Louis team — cornerstone MVP contenders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado — struggled in the two-game sweep and seemed to take the loss harder than Pujols and Molina.

"Albert, Yadi, those guys are legends," a somber Arenado told reporters. "It was such an honor to play with them. We wanted to do it for them, we just couldn't get it done."

Neither has a World Series ring yet, neither is nearly ready to acknowledge the ticking of the clock. But Arenado and Goldschmidt and Jerry Dipoto and Julio Rodriguez and Bryce Harper and Juan Soto and everyone else thrashing to stay on top will realize this soon if they haven't already: What Pujols and Molina were able to do is perhaps harder than the cliche of going out on top. They beat back the forces that throw most players out. They weathered the corrosive effects of age and 162-game seasons. With plenty of help and good fortune, they rose to the occasion of walking off with vigor — safe at first and aware of their place in the game.

So no, most can’t go out like this. Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina know that as well as anyone.