Molina hurting, and Cardinals may be too if star catcher is sidelined
ST. LOUIS — Whistle. Cheer. Clap, clap, clap.
You could almost pinpoint the locations. The whistle, high up behind home plate. The cheer, from dead centerfield. The clapping, down a tier below the whistle. At 9:25 p.m. local time on Sunday, Busch Stadium was quiet, so dead that each peep of noise, each attempt to crack the chilly, misty silence, made it seem even worse.
It was the bottom of the sixth inning of St. Louis' eventual 5-4 victory over the Giants, and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had just grounded into an inning-ending double play. Under normal circumstances, the outs would have been a little more than a bother, but these circumstances were far from normal. Instead of taking off, however perfunctorily, for second base on the ground ball, Molina remained in the batter's box. He bent over, grimaced and waited for St. Louis' training staff to help him off the field.
"I watched the ball, and when I looked at home plate, and he didn't move… heads kind of dropped a little bit there," Grichuk added.
Within the hour, the injury report was in: a strained left oblique that could sideline the 32-year-old Molina for some, if not all, of the remainder of the National League Championship Series, which resumes Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco. (Molina will remain on the Cardinals' NLCS roster, primarily because to replace him would leave him ineligible to play in the World Series.) The catcher did fly with the team to San Francisco immediately after Sunday's game — he left the stadium for an MRI but was finished in time to take off — and after arriving in the Bay Area Monday, he met with the team's medical staff. Afterward, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, himself a catcher for 12 seasons in the big leagues, said that Molina was able to throw during the team's off-day workout, but that he did not take any swings.
If Molina can't go at any point the rest of this month, either A.J. Pierzynski, a 17-year veteran who joined St. Louis in July after being released by the Red Sox, and Tony Cruz, a career backup with just three postseason plate appearances, will replace him. It was Cruz who took over for Molina in the seventh inning on Sunday and immediately allowed a passed ball that led to the tying run scoring in that frame. In the ninth inning, he couldn't stop a wild pitch from closer Trevor Rosenthal that enabled Giants pinch runner Matt Duffy to score all the way from second base, tying the game again.
No matter what St. Louis decides about Molina's status for Game 3, the injury could nag. It could sideline him not just for the NLCS, but also for the World Series, which creates a big question: Can the Cardinals win their second title in four years without their All-Star catcher?
Emotion screams no. Molina has been the Cardinals' rock since he took over as their full-time backstop in 2005, and it almost seems like he's been crouching behind the plate in St. Louis forever. The key players with which he won his first World Series in 2006 – Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen – are long gone, but Molina remains in place, as much a fixture in the organization as ever.
Now in his 11th year in St. Louis, Molina is the longest-tenured Cardinal, but he still remains a major contributor. Consider his reputation behind the plate; that alone keeps runners glued to their bases, too timid to test Molina's arm. In 2014, he threw out a major-league-best 48 percent of runners attempting to steal.
At the plate, however, Molina's production dipped from what it was in recent years, especially after he returned from missing 40 games in July and August with a torn ligament in his right thumb. In 2012 and '13, Molina finished in the top four of the NL MVP voting each season while batting .317 with an .855 OPS and 34 combined home runs. When he first went on the DL in July, he was batting .287, with a .341 on-base percentage. Those were perfectly good marks, especially on a team that was struggling to generate offense across the board. But after coming back, he batted .267 with a .626 OPS and zero home runs.
In the 40 games Molina missed during that stretch, St. Louis went 21-19. After he returned, they went 19-11 and surged into first place, eventually winning the NL Central for the second straight year. Cruz was solid defensively in Molina's absence, but he batted just .153 over those six weeks, and it was Pierzynski who helped keep the team afloat. In 21 games played between July 26 and Aug. 28, the 37-year-old batted a respectable .265 and provided the veteran leadership the 28-year-old Cruz simply isn't capable of.
At this point, it would be futile to theorize about who will get the brunt of Molina's at bats, simply because that person may be Molina. "I'm going to try and not be the oddsmaker here," Matheny said Sunday, when the information about his catcher's status was limited. And then the manager paused. "I do have to say," he continued, "that we have one of the toughest human beings I've ever seen that we're talking about right now."
In this case, toughness could mean Molina hobbles back into the lineup — he described his injury as feeling similar to being stabbed — and does a job not appreciably better than a Cruz-Pierzynski tandem. It could mean he's ready off the bench, too, be it for defense, for his bat, or for both. Or it could mean he swallows his pain and plays like the 2014 version of himself, which is still better than almost every other catcher in the game.
The silence that ensued at Busch Stadium after Molina tapped into that double play — the funereal, soul-sucking silence — was the Cardinals' moment of mourning. Don't expect them to stand still much longer. They'll keep on playing, and if history has any bearing, they may just keep on winning, albeit in the most heart-stopping, improbable fashion.