I met one of my good friends to watch the St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs in NLDS Game 1. Before the game started, we got into a discussion on who our favorite Cardinal ever was. I immediately said Ozzie Smith. My selection was pure nostalgia, fueled by the way the shortstop made me feel as a child. Ozzie captured my imagination and won my fan heart for the Cardinals.
My friend chose Yadier Molina. He said Molina is the best catcher he's ever seen and he has gotten to watch him every night at an age where he can appreciate the nuance of his greatness. It was a difficult choice to argue with in terms of pure logic. Molina has been the single player present from the MV3 season of 2004 to the current run of St. Louis success. He has become the face of the Cardinals, playing on our television screens nearly every night, and for good reason.
Against the Cubs in September, Molina suffered an injury to his thumb that caused him to miss the last two weeks of the regular season. The Cardinals won the Central title, which ensured them a berth in the NLDS and, more importantly, a few more days off for Molina to heal. In the days leading up to St. Louis management announcing the team's NLDS roster, optimism abounded with respect to their injured backstop. It got to the point that it wasn't surprising when the Cards announced that Molina was on the active roster or that he was one of just two catchers. Molina would play wearing a splint.
Not only has Molina been playing with a splint, though. Molina has a special bat handle, which TBS mentioned and showed last night. It is cut like an axe handle as opposed to the normal baseball-bat knob. That's to make it less painful for him to grip and swing the bat. Unfortunately, the special knob didn't seem to help Molina much in Game 3.
Molina dug in against Arrieta in the fourth inning. The Cards had plated two runs off the Chicago righty. With a duck on the pond, Molina took an aggressive approach. Looking fastball, Molina took a vicious hack at Arrieta's first pitch. Arrieta didn't throw a heater; he spun a slider. Molina came out of his shoes on his swing and his left hand let go of the bat because of the pain it caused his injured thumb. Molina slumped over, in obvious pain.
After the trainer tended to him, Molina stayed in to finish the at-bat and took the field to catch another two innings. However, Matheny eventually removed Molina in the sixth inning for pinch-hitter Brandon Moss. It was similar to the game at Wrigley in which Molina initially injured his hand, when he stayed in to play defense but was removed the next time his spot came up in the order. Matheny said this after that September game:
"Him coming out of the game right there, it took some talking to do it because he wants to stay in and felt like he could still catch," Matheny explained. "But I didn't want to see him with a bat in his hand. Better chance to let somebody come in and take the at-bat."
So managerial caution with respect to swinging is not new when it comes to this injury and Molina's pain-inducing swing is evidence of why. It necessitated pulling him from the game to avoid additional cuts at the plate.
After Molina's Game 3 early exit, Matheny sounded a tone of concern more than caution. As relayed by STL Baseball Weekly's Brian Stull, when asked about Molina's status, Matheny said:
"Don’t know yet," answered Matheny on Molina’s status moving forward. "For him to come out, I think people who follow our team closely realize that’s significant as far as what it must feel like. We could tell a little bit in how he was catching today and definitely when you saw the one particular swing, but watched him in all the warm-ups and watched him in BP–he looked good."
"You just never know with that particular injury if there’s a ball that gets fouled off or a swing that doesn’t quite feel right, it could set him backwards. We’re going to let our medical guys get their hands on him–part of the messaging with him was let’s try and get ahead of this before it goes any further to where we have to rule you out altogether. Let’s see what they can do, see if they can once again support that thumb in a way that he can continue to play and just see if maybe getting him out a little early can help us as we move forward."
One wonders what looking "good" means to Matheny. Of course, batting practice is one thing and adversarial pitching in the postseason another. But Molina has looked decidedly feeble at the bat during this series. So bad, in fact, that his teammates had an outsized and emotional response to him flicking a liner down the right-field line for his first and only postseason hit back in Game 2.
Molina doesn't just look bad at the bat, though. In the field, he hasn't been himself either. Molina has dropped numerous balls, often with no one on base. It appears that he is cheating when he can to give his injured hand a pitch off here and there. One wonders how much longer Molina will be able to pick and choose such moments, especially after last night's pain-inducing and perhaps injury-reaggravating swing.
Molina is the best defensive catcher many of us have ever seen, and that's setting aside pitch-calling and batter-against-pitcher strategy, which is difficult to parcel out from a given pitcher for we fans watching at home. Yet it's nonetheless worth noting that Molina earns universal plaudits for that skill, and from learned Baseball Men such as Tony La Russa who are not prone to the type of hyperbolic language they use when talking about the multi-time Platinum Glove winner. Molina helps the team win when he's behind the plate and healthy. And there's the rub. Molina is a shell of his former self on the field right now because of injury.
Fox Sports Midwest broadcaster Al Hrabosky likes to talk and is perhaps even more fond of repeating himself when blabbing during broadcasts. It's awful to sit through. Back when Molina was young and a horrendous hitter, Hrabosky was prone to repeat the Cardinals' company line that Molina's defense was so good that any offense he provided was a bonus. In October 2015, it appears we've come something more than full circle to those days in the mid-aughts.
Molina is injured. He's plainly not his normal self in the field and a shell of what he once was at the plate. Nothing about his game this autumn supports an analogy to cake. Molina has been a cornerstone in the St. Louis clubhouse for years. He is a respected leader. But will Molina's presence on the field in NLDS Game 4 or, gods of baseball willing, Game 5 give the Cardinals the best chance of winning? That's the tough question St. Louis management must ask and answer before first pitch.