Seton Hall senior shortstop Al Molina does not hesitate when diving for a line drive through the gap. He has experienced lows before. A standout for Red Bank Catholic High School, Molina was handed what seemed on the surface like two golden tickets during his senior season of high school in 2014. As it turned out, those tickets were fool’s gold.
Molina had to choose between going pro after getting drafted in the 29th-round by the Philadelphia Phillies – for little pay and job security – or a full-ride offer from Coastal Carolina, a program with stability and success. Molina, not surprisingly, chose the latter.
“Out of high school, I was thinking that I was going to go to a good program, where I was going to develop and get better,” Molina said. “And hopefully, three years later, four years later, get picked in a higher round.”
Freshman season at Coastal proved to be less than ideal for Molina, though. He played in 37 games for the Chanticleers, but all were in left field. After making it through that season, one in which the team posted a 39-20 record, Molina had seemingly swallowed his medicine and was ready to assume shortstop responsibilities.
However, flying in the face of those expectations, teammates who were expected to make the jump to the professional ranks did not, and Molina saw a future where he would be trapped in left field for another season. He needed to get out.
“There were a bunch of infielders that were supposed to get drafted, and they didn’t have the year that they thought they were going to have,” Molina said. “And…so, there wasn’t going to be any open spots in the infield.
“It’s just something that I didn’t want to do; I didn’t want to go out and compete for an outfield spot again, so, I decided to follow what my gut was saying, and trust the fact that I knew what I wanted to do with my career, and I knew where I wanted to play.”
One year after walking on campus at Coastal Carolina, Molina made what amounted to a short-term sacrifice, for what he hoped would have long-term rewards. That sacrifice was transferring to Brookdale Community College in Middletown, N.J. in 2015, and moving back in with his parents in the process.
The year was difficult for many reasons, primarily the isolation that Molina felt with high school friends away at universities and very little social life at Brookdale. His life became a cycle of schoolwork and baseball, and at 20 years old, he yearned to feel like a normal college student again.
“I’ve been through a lot of…it was hard,” Molina said. “When I was at Brookdale, I was living at home. I was in my room, playing Xbox when all my friends were in college having the time of their life playing for college teams.
“There was a low moment where, I was questioning my decision. And, I had some personal things going on, it wasn’t just baseball, it wasn’t just my family, there were other things going on. And, it was just a two-punch combo, three-punch combo, and I was…probably at my lowest.”
On the field, particularly with a third head coach in three years, it was hard for Molina not to question how and why the two offers he had in his hands as a senior at Red Bank Catholic brought him to the humbling fields of Brookdale. But game by game, Molina re-discovered his swing and with it, the swagger that made him such a heralded recruit only two years prior.
After a sharp dive in his offensive numbers from senior year of high school where he batted .451, to freshman year of college where he batted .231, Molina’s production skyrocketed back to Red Bank-like numbers during his year at Brookdale. All of a sudden, chatter surrounding the MLB re-emerged, but Molina had only one focus in mind, and that was to get back to Division I college baseball.
A shortstop once again, Molina had multiple offers, with some that could have sent him back to the southeast and others from some big schools in the northeast. But there was one offer that stood out, from a school that rarely recruited players from junior college; Seton Hall.
“They [Seton Hall] even told me, normally we don’t reach out to junior college guys,” Molina said. “But we’re in need of a shortstop, and you could really help the team.”
The offer was appealing to Molina for several factors, but the main appeal was the number of high school ties that existed within the Pirate roster, with players who Molina had played with and against applying their trade in South Orange.
“It was kind of a nice thing to know in the back of my head, that, I know I’m coming into a program where I know people and I know I’m really good friends with some of these guys; and I should just jump right into stride with it,” Molina said.
Ultimately, Molina chose to commit to Seton Hall in the fall of 2016, becoming a unique newcomer to a team lacking transfer additions. In the field, it was everything he wanted, as he stepped into the shortstop spot he had longed for.
At the plate, however, Molina did not feel comfortable until his senior season, following a crucial adjustment to his swing during the offseason that jumped his batting average from .254 to .295 and his on-base percentage from .324 to .373. Now having cleaned up his plate mechanics, Molina has become an indispensable part to the Pirates lineup, with a team-leading 11 extra-base hits.
“I think the experience definitely helped, but I also think that, my swing last year wasn’t right all year,” Molina said. “I didn’t really feel great all year; I don’t remember a game where I felt like, ‘Wow, I feel like I should.’ But this year, I’ve made a few adjustments, and I feel like I should.”
Now, four years after the opportunity to play for a Major League organization, Molina is not far away from potentially having his name called once more. Still, with plenty left to achieve in a short Seton Hall career, Molina only wants to think about hearing his name called by Matt Sweeney, the PA announcer at Owen T. Carroll Field.
“I try to just, stay in the now; finish off my career strong here,” Molina said. “I don’t really like to think about who’s in the stands, who’s watching, when am I going to get drafted, if I’m going to get drafted. It’s just, stuff that I can’t control.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.