As usual, Molina's defense a difference-maker for NL Central champion Cardinals

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ST. LOUIS — Yadier Molina returned in late August from a torn ligament in his right thumb, and the All-Star catcher has been a difference-maker for the St. Louis Cardinals as they try to reach the NL championship series for the fourth straight year.

"It was tough to sit down for two months and see the team go one without me, but at the same time, I had confidence that I could get back and I did," Molina said Sunday after the Cardinals clinched their second straight NL Central title. "And now look at where we are. It's a great feeling."

Molina's bat hasn't been as much of a factor since his return: His .288 batting average ended a run of three straight .300-plus seasons, and he hasn't homered since June.

He had eight RBIs with five doubles and a mediocre .292 on-base percentage in his last 27 games, but he's been a dominating presence behind the plate. Molina's arm figures to be a deterrent to the Dodgers' speedy Dee Gordon in the NL division series that starts Friday in Los Angeles.

"I love watching him behind the plate, the little things he does all the time," manager Mike Matheny said. "He does a great job of controlling the tempo."

When Albert Pujols left as a free agent following the Cardinals' World Series title in 2011, Molina became the team's central force. He was third in the NL MVP balloting last year and fourth in '12.

The Cardinals have the lowest-scoring team in the postseason, putting a premium on Molina's game-calling skills. He has won six straight NL Gold Gloves and been instrumental in the development of young starters Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.

Lynn has learned to avoid meltdowns when grounders find holes, fielders get poor jumps or umpires call a tight strike zone. Miller has become more trusting of secondary pitches.

Young closer Trevor Rosenthal also has benefited, growing comfortable with off-speed deliveries that prevent hitters from timing his formidable fastball.

"I think It doesn't matter who I'm facing, I know I've got a chance to beat them," Lynn said. "Especially with this team, this defense and this lineup behind me."

While Molina was recovering from surgery from an injury sustained when he dragged his hand in the dirt making a slide, Tony Cruz and A.J. Pierzynski were a combined 6 for 30 throwing out base stealers.

In 107 games, only 44 tested Molina and just 21 succeeded.

Gordon led the majors with 64 steals but in seven games against the Cardinals was just 1 for 2.

"He's probably one of the toughest guys I've ever seen in the big leagues," general manager John Mozeliak said.

A decade ago, Molina got his first big league call-up. Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove catcher, recalls the Cardinals were in Pittsburgh and that he was going on the DL with an oblique injury. Molina, though unpolished at the plate, already was an extraordinary defensive catcher. He's the youngest of three brothers to catch in the majors, and has surpassed Bengie and Jose.

"I think everybody knew. I saw it early on," Matheny said. "He had more reason than anybody else to come out here and act like he already knew more than most people, because he actually did."

The manager wasn't so sure Molina would become a top hitter, usually from the No. 5 slot these days.

"I couldn't say I saw that coming," Matheny said. "I saw him being a better hitter than I was, and a better hitter than most everyday catchers."

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AP Sports Writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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