When Yadier Molina still was a teenager, his father, Benjamin, placed him on an amateur team in Puerto Rico that pitted his youngest son against men 10 years older and 10 years more mature and forced him to find a way to make sure they weren’t also 10 years better.

The team was the Hatillo Tigres.

Benjamin had another predator in mind.

“I threw him with the lions,” he would say.

That was the explanation that Benjamin gave Bengie and Jose Molina, the older brothers, when they asked their dad why young Yadier was urged to play in one of Puerto Rico’s top men’s amateur leagues before even being eligible for the major-league draft.

“Oh, I’m going to throw him with the lions and make him grow up,” Bengie Molina recalled his father saying. “And he did. Yadi did. That’s why I think he’s good. He had to be a veteran at a young age. When he came over here it was nothing. I think that’s what started it, at least. You have to grow up quick in that league. That’s the way I saw it. That was the first step to where he is now.”

Where he is now is the MVP-caliber catcher and compass for the team with the best record in baseball. The Cardinals often go where Molina points them.

If it’s not shepherding a rookie-infused rotation to the lowest ERA in the National League, it’s providing as the leading hitter, often in the middle of the lineup.

Molina walked into the ballpark Saturday with a .352 average, the highest in the NL and second in baseball only to Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera.

He took over the NL lead with four consecutive two-hit games to end a week that began with his ejection from a game and one-game suspension. Major League Baseball excused Molina’s spiking of his helmet and fixated more on the contact he made with an umpire and a past suspension for an aggressive confrontation with an umpire. The Cardinals pointed to Molina’s aggressive argument with a rookie umpire as a sign of his intensity, his competitiveness.

Those traits, teammates suggest, fuel his performance on the field and his increasing presence off it. They cannot be spliced. The high batting average and MVP trappings are recent additions to his game, but they are rooted in the same qualities that have made Molina the heir to Albert Pujols as the Cardinals’ best player.

His brother said that mature burn and feel for leading started with the Tigres. Chris Carpenter said the world first saw it when young Molina confronted Manny Ramirez at home plate in the 2004 World Series. Adam Wainwright believes it was a more recent event that crystallized Molina’s place in the clubhouse — for him and the team.