Though they headed into the weekend having gone a modest 14-11 this month, the Cardinals have improved their playoff odds more than any other NL team in that timespan. While they fell victim to a pair of home runs off the bat of rookie Jorge Soler in a 7-2 loss to the Cubs on Friday night, they received a shot in the arm that should further boost their hopes for October: the return of Yadier Molina from a torn ligament in his right thumb.
While Molina hadn't hit to the level of his stellar 2012 (.315/.373/.501) and 2013 (.319/.359/.477) campaigns, he was batting a respectable .287/.341/.409 while delivering his typically stellar defense when he suffered the injury back on July 9. Running the bases in a game against the Pirates, his thumb got stuck in the dirt as he was sliding into third, and after catching just one more half-inning, he left the game. An MRI confirmed the tear, and on July 11, he underwent surgery, forcing him to forgo what would have been his sixth straight All-Star Game appearance.
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At the time, the expectation was that the 32-year-old backstop would be out for eight to 12 weeks, but following his recovery from surgery, Molina progressed to throwing and hitting more quickly than expected — a relief if only because it meant that the Cardinals' minor league affiliates would still be in action once he was ready for his rehab assignment. His return to competitive action at Triple-A Springfield on Wednesday evening marked seven weeks to the day since he sustained the injury. He played two games at Springfield, going 5-for-6 with three doubles before departing in the late innings of each game in favor of a replacement.
The Cardinals went just 21-19 in Molina's absence, and they were lucky to do so, as they were outscored by a whopping 34 runs in that span (190-156); their Pythagorean winning percentage for the period was just .411, so it's fair to say that they were playing way over their heads. Backup Tony Cruz started 21 games while Molina was on the shelf while free agent pickup A.J. Pierzynski, who had been released by the Red Sox back on July 16, started 18 after signing with St. Louis on July 26; the since-departed George Kottaras started the other game.
None of them could adequately replace Molina; Cruz has hit an anemic .195/.267/.236 in 137 PA this year while throwing out just 22 percent of would-be base thieves, while Pierzynski has hit a thin .265/.324/.338 since joining the team, throwing out just nine percent (one out of 11) of would-be thieves. Considering only their time with the Redbirds, the pair are a combined eight runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved; meanwhile, Molina leads the NL with a 49 percent caught stealing rate and is eight runs above average behind the plate. Additionally, via Baseball Prospectus' advanced catching metrics, his pitch framing has been slightly above average (+1.3), while the rest of the St. Louis catchers have been a dismal 7.4 runs below average.
All of which is to say that Molina should be a big help on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals' offense continues to wheeze along, scoring just 3.76 runs per game, the league's second-lowest rate, so he should provide a bit of a boost with the bat. But even if he struggles to regain his stroke, his presence behind the plate should help a pitching staff that was roughed up for 4.75 runs per game during his absence, a higher rate than every NL team except the Rockies. It hasn’t helped that the team’s rotation has been in flux due to injuries and trades; Molina will have to get used to working with deadline acquisitions Justin Masterson and John Lackey.
In his first game back, Molina was unable to provide any kind of storybook return. He was greeted with several warm ovations from the Busch Stadium crowd, though he went hitless in his four plate appearances. Facing starter Kyle Hendricks, he struck out on six pitches in the second inning, lined out to first base in the fourth, and was grazed by a pitch in the sixth; additionally, he struck out against reliever Pedro Strop in the eighth after getting ahead 3-0.
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Behind the plate, Molina helped Shelby Miller to his best start since August 6, stealing a few extra strikes at the bottom of home plate umpire Joe West's strike zone relative to what the Cubs were able to get. Miller allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings while striking out three. Two of the hits were solo homers, one by Luis Valbuena in the second, the other by Soler in the seventh. He departed in favor of Pat Neshek, who struggled with his command and allowed hits to the first three batters he faced, one of them a two-run double by rookie Javier Baez. After getting two outs, he served up a two-run shot to Soler — his third in three games, matching Baez’s accomplishment last month — that traveled an estimated 442 feet to left centerfield. Watch Molina’s glove and you can see that Neshek missed his spot by several inches:
The loss dropped the Cardinals to 72-52, 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central but up one game up on the Braves in the Wild Card race. But even with the defeat, they’re in better shape than on Thursday; with Molina back in the fold, a fourth straight trip to the postseason is within reach.