SAN FRANCISCO St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny caught the last of his 13 major league seasons with the Giants in 2006 and recalls crossing paths in later years with the baby-faced catcher the Giants drafted in the first round in 2008.
"It didn't take too much foresight to realize he was going to be special," Matheny said of Buster Posey as a minor leaguer. "You could see his makeup, natural leadership skills he has. And obviously he can swing the bat a little bit."
Matheny also remembers his first impression of Yadier Molina, the catcher the Cardinals drafted as a teenager in 2000. That was the first of five seasons Matheny played in St. Louis. He saw Molina at a spring training workout and went home convinced.
"I told my wife, I saw the kid that's going to steal my job," Matheny said.
Posey and Molina, now the cornerstones of their respective teams, lead the Giants and Cardinals into the National League Championship Series tonight after putting together arguably the best individual seasons of their careers.
Posey, 25, is a front-runner for the league's MVP award after becoming the first N.L. catcher to win a batting title since 1942. He hit .336 with 24 home runs, drove in 103 runs, and shouldered much of the offensive load for the Giants after Melky Cabrera's drug suspension.
Molina, 30 and long thought of as one of baseball's best defensive catchers, had the offensive numbers to match this year, batting .315 with 22 homers and 76 RBIs. It was the second year in a row he led the Cardinals, no slouches at the plate, in batting average.
No catcher threw out more runners than Posey, with 38. But while runners were apt to test him teams also stole 87 bases with Posey behind the plate they turned to bronze with Molina in the crouch. Opponents stole 38 bases off Molina and were caught 35 times.
"I think you're talking about two of the best catchers in the game when you're looking at Yadi and Buster," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, another former backstop. "It's a big reason why these two teams are here is because of the two catchers."
It goes beyond the numbers, of course. The stoic Posey is a clubhouse leader. The Giants won the World Series two years ago with the then-23-year-old batting in the cleanup spot and handling their stingy pitching staff.
His impact, though, was perhaps better measured by his absence for most of last year because of the home-plate collision and ankle injury that ended his season in May. Consider Carlos Beltran, now with the Cardinals, reflecting on the 44 games he played with the Giants in 2011 after being acquired at the trade deadline: "I believe if (Posey) would've been with us last year, there's no doubt we would've been in the playoffs," Beltran said Saturday. "That's what type of hitter and player he is. He makes a difference on a ballclub."
The freshest example is the grand slam Posey hit in Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday to help the Giants complete their comeback from a 2-0 series deficit against the Reds.
In the arena of dramatic playoff home runs, Molina can relate. As a 24-year-old, his ninth-inning blast in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS snapped a tied game and sent the Cardinals to the World Series.
The Molina effect, too, is not relegated to statistics.
Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso, a former UC Davis star, said having Molina behind the plate "shuts down other teams' running games."
The Cardinals had a new pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, this season in the absence of Dave Duncan. Lance Lynn, who will start Game 1 for them tonight, downplayed the adjustment, in part because: "They tell you to throw what Yadi calls."
In watching Molina, Posey said how quiet Molina is when setting up to receive a pitch.
"He's very still," Posey said. "Still's not even the right word, but he looks so relaxed always, and I think he steals a lot of pitches for his pitchers. The job he does framing the ball is second to none."
It's one of the intangibles that Matheny referenced in opining that Molina "has impressed me more than any catcher I've ever witnessed."
In turn, Matheny extolled Posey's season in light of his injury-marred 2011, and his stubbornness in playing 148 games his first season back, including 114 in which he caught.
"I know Buster has to have a lot of consideration as to the Most Valuable Player," Matheny said, "but from where I sit, I don't know how Yadier Molina couldn't be in that conversation as well."
Those votes are in. But there is still time for each to leave a mark on the season, carrying his team to the World Series.