ST. LOUIS — Sunday night, the Cardinals again pulled an improbable win out of the cool October air. But even as the Busch Stadium roar enveloped the raucous walk-off celebration at home plate, it was impossible to ignore the pall of concern that loomed over the victory like the layer of fog settling in over downtown St. Louis.
Yadier Molina exited in the sixth inning after not making it out of the batter’s box on a double play ball, instead doubling over in pain with his hands on his knees. He was helped off the field by his manager and the trainers, heading to the clubhouse with what was later diagnosed as a strained oblique.
"He's out getting some looks right now from the doctors," Mike Matheny said afterward. “We'll know later, but it didn't look real good."
Such openness from the Cardinals is ominous, since the organization is notoriously tight-lipped when discussing injuries. Adam Wainwright’s elbow issues were downplayed heading into the NLCS and it became clear the 33-year-old was far from himself after another abbreviated start.
With Molina potentially sidelined, the Cards find themselves in uncharted waters. Since the 2006 season, he and Wainwright have been the club’s foundation and veteran leadership. Wainwright missed all of 2011 after Tommy John surgery and Molina missed a healthy chunk of time this year with his damaged thumb, but the team has never faced a substantial stretch where they are without both and certainly not in October.
Neither is definitively done for the season, but even though the Cardinals tied the series before heading to San Francisco, the road ahead is uncertain.
An oblique injury can be nagging, affecting nearly every motion the body makes. Couple that with fact Molina returned from his thumb surgery one week earlier than even the short end of his 8-12 week recovery projection and doubts begin to mount that he can be effective in the remaining games.
The 32-year-old has caught 6,673 innings since 2009, leading the NL or finishing second in number of games behind the plate every year except 2014.
Wainwright has led the league in innings pitched twice since 2009, and finished in the top three the other two years. Both players have carried considerable loads the past four seasons, and at the end of an exceptionally hard-fought year, that strain is showing.
If the Cardinals are going to make another trip the the Fall Classic, youth must lead the way. Sunday night demonstrated the baby Birds might be up to the task. Three of the five St. Louis runs were plated by players with their rookie status still intact and a fourth was from sophomore Matt Adams. The bullpen is largely manned by second-year players (with rookie Marco Gonzales emerging as a postseason force). The rotation features Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn at a combined service time of just over three years, and both made strong starts so far.
But there is no player less easily replaced than Molina. He has six Gold Gloves, a reputation frightening enough to deter the run game and an arm that can punish even the slightest misstep on the base paths. His near-eidetic memory of hitters and their approaches makes him indispensable as a signal caller, and his presence on the field is without question a calming influence on the other eight players.
A.J. Pierzynski, fortuitously added to the NLCS roster by Matheny, can help cushion some of the drop off behind the plate. His receiving and pitch framing skills are a cut above Tony Cruz, and his experience (postseason and otherwise) will help steady a relatively green roster in a tough series. He has experience catching Game 3 starter John Lackey, and with the Giants throwing right-hander Tim Hudson, he is a logical choice to step in as the team’s backstop.
St. Louis cannot replace Molina without losing him for the World Series as well, so anything short of a season-ending prognosis means the Birds will play short handed for the rest of the series. That leaves the NLCS in young, if capable, hands. It has long been said the future is bright for the Cards, and now that projection will be tested.