A major-league catcher is the most under-appreciated, over-worked, but wholly vital player on the baseball diamond.

While a pitcher is asked to deliver the ball to the plate and retire the batter, a catcher is supposed to call the pitch and receive it cleanly.

This seems simple enough, but there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye such as having to worry about foul balls drilling you, a bat whizzing by your facemask and blobbering you on the backswing, and if the ball is in the dirt, make sure it doesn’t skip away and bounce to the backstop.

Yeah, it’s hazardous work sometimes, but it’s also the quickest way to the big leagues. Taking all these considerations into account, the best catcher working today is Yadier Molina, the 10-year veteran for the St. Louis Cardinals, whose team has the best mark in baseball at 32-17 after taking two of three games from the host Dodgers this past weekend.

Covering the last six seasons, the youngest of three major-league catching brothers that include Bengie and Jose, the 30-year-old Molina has been behind the plate for more innings than any receiver, and has gunned down nearly 45 percent of potential base stealers in his career, which is the highest among active catchers.

Retired Manager Tony La Russa, who spent 33 seasons in the dugout, and led the Oakland Athletics and Cardinals to World Series titles, has high praise for Molina, who made his debut in 2004.

“Yadier could go hitless the entire season, and he’d still be the best catcher in the game,’’ said La Russa, who carved out a championship with the A’s in 1989, and with the Red Birds in 2006 and 2011. “His value goes beyond hitting. He’s the most indispensable player in the game.”

What makes Molina, selected to four All-Star teams so special behind the dish? For starters he’s smart and knows the opposing hitters and his own pitching staff so well. That he’s cat-like quick, and has a strong throwing arm doesn’t hurt.

Midway through Saturday’s 5-3 loss, Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and analyst Tim McCarver, asked Sunday’s starting pitcher Shelby Miller what makes Molina other-worldly.

“I know he’s the best,’’ said Miller, who has a 5-3 record with a 2.02 earned-run average. “Just being his teammate and watching him work helps me. He’s won something like five straight Gold Gloves and the World Series.”

Molina carries a .282 lifetime batting average, and though the Puerto Rican native went hitless in Friday’s 7-0 win, he drove in a run, while on Saturday, he doubled, singled twice, scored a run and drove in a run, and in Sunday’s 5-3 victory, had a hit with a run scored, and is batting .339, third-best in the National League.

An accomplished hitter, Molina blossomed into a superb batter beginning in 2011 when he hit .305, and followed that with a .315 average.

On the grand stage, Molina, who has bashed as many as 22 homers (2012) and 32 doubles (2011), owns a .299 batting average in 63 playoff games with 14 doubles, two homers and 27 runs batted in, while in 15 World Series games, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Molina has a .341 average which he hopes to improve upon come October.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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