ST. LOUIS – Cardinal All-Star Yadier Molina left the second game of the NLCS in the sixth inning Sunday with a strained left oblique, according to the team.
After Jhonny Peralta led off the inning with a walk, Molina stepped in with his team leading 2-1. On the fourth pitch he saw, he hit a bouncer to second base. Peralta didn't make the bag in time to try to break up the double play, but it didn't matter; Molina made it past the left-handed batter's box. The catcher doubled over in pain and rested his hands on his knees. Mike Matheny and the Cardinals’ trainer came out and had to assist Molina off the field.
Matheny said Molina felt, "a little something," in his first at-bat, but they thought he was good enought to continue. In that at-bat, Molina singled into center. In his next at-bat in the fifth inning, he laid down a sacrifice bunt which seemed curious as the Cards had two runners on and no outs.
"We take everything into consideration and get an opportunity to lay a bunt down or have a swing, so that was taken into the equation," Matheny said of Molina's discomfort. "And we were hopeful that the next at-bat things would loosen up a little bit, but obviously that wasn't the case."
The six-time Gold Glover needed help getting down the stairs and into the clubhouse, prompting concerns that a return to NLCS action was unlikely.
"He's out getting some looks right now from the doctors," Matheny said following the game, "We'll know later, but it didn't look real good."
Matheny continued by saying the Cardinals wouldn't make a decision on whether to replace Molina on the postseason roster until they know more about the extent of the injury. If Molina is removed from the NLCS roster, he will not be eligible to play in the World Series. But if they don't replace him and the injury sidelines him for the series, the Cardinals would end up playing with a short bench.
"If we have to go short with an opportunity to have him back, we'd do that. But we will cross that bridge when we get to it," Matheny explained.
"Seeing Yadi go down, you know, he’s our leader," said back-up catcher Tony Cruz, who played the final three innings as Molina's replacement. "Someone has to be ready to step up and take advantage of the opportunity. I was down in the cage hitting, so I didn't see that happen. They just came down and told me I was going in the game. I didn't see him not run, but I knew something was wrong with him."
Molina’s absence was glaring through the remainder of the game, as Cruz had a rough time behind the plate. In the seventh inning, Cruz gave up a passed ball that allowed the Brandon Crawford to advance into scoring position as the tying run. He later scored on single.
In the ninth inning the Cards held a tenuous one-run lead and the Giants had a pinch runner at second. Trevor Rosenthal let go of a fastball in the dirt to Joe Panik and Cruz was unable to block it. The ball skipped into the air of his glove, and pinch runner Matt Duffy came all the way around from second to score the tying run.
At 99 miles per hour it was a tough pitch to corral, but it was hard for observers not to wonder if Molina would have played it differently.
"Trevor throws hard, we all know that," Cruz explained. "That ball bounced pretty far out there and I was just trying to do anything I could to try to keep it in front."
Molina has caught all but five innings in the postseason since 2005. Neither Cruz nor A.J. Pierzynski have the same defensive reputation as Molina, but Cruz does have the benefit of familiarity with the pitching staff.
"I know our pitchers pretty well and we’ll try to put a good game plan together and execute it," Cruz added, "But don’t count Yadi out. I don’t know what’s going on, but we’ll see tomorrow how it’s feeling."
With Adam Wainwright already a diminished version of himself, the Cardinals will have a tough road ahead if Molina is absent for the remainder of the series. Still, the team continues to express confidence in their other options.
"Cruz is a guy that is day in and day out learning as much as he can for the last three years," said Sunday's starter Lance Lynn, "He knows what kind of player he can be, and we have all the confidence in the world in him."