ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals arrived in San Francisco early Monday morning, and by mid-afternoon Mike Matheny was fielding questions about star catcher Yadier Molina’s condition.
After exiting Game 2 of the NLCS in the sixth inning with a strained oblique, the six-time Gold Glover became a question mark not only for the rest of the series with the Giants, but for the postseason as a whole. After a night’s rest, the Cardinal manager said things didn’t look so dire during the team’s workout.
“It’s been basically watch and see. They’ve done a lot of tests. We just went out and played catch and I was very surprised at how well he was able to throw the ball. I didn’t think he was going to be able to at all and he actually threw quite well,” he told reporters in his San Francisco press conference. “I didn’t really- I didn’t think there was any possibility, having that injury myself knowing how hard it was to throw, but he was throwing the ball with some velocity. It was encouraging to see.”
Molina already missed a significant chunk of the second half when he tore a ligament in his right thumb, and his return coincided with an impressive charge to the top of the Central Division for the Cardinals. With Adam Wainwright already a shadow of his 20-win self, losing Molina would be a devastating blow to a team fighting for extra games in October.
The club announced Monday he will be day-to-day and will not be removed from the NLCS roster. Despite a positive outlook on Molina’s recuperative ability, the decision was likely impacted by the rule that had he been replaced for the NLCS, he would also have to remain off the World Series roster.
“Those ramifications are obvious and that’s a tough rule with having to lose him not just the rest of this one, and if we were fortunate enough to move on, we wouldn’t have him as well,” Matheny said. “So that definitely goes into it. Right now it’s just looking at what he brings to the table. He could bring the ability to come into a game and help us out defensively, and hopefully improve to the point where we could use him offensively as well.”
Matheny also added that Molina had not swung a bat yet, and that hurdle would be the most difficult to clear. Even with the 32-year-old offensively compromised, his value as a defender and his skill at deftly handing the pitching staff led the manager to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of replacing him for a healthy bat.
“Right now that’s not a priority for us. Needed to see how he could throw first and just how he’s moving around and testing range of motion and so forth. The swing’s going to be a difficult thing right now,” Matheny said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I know it’s just great having him with us in any capacity, especially when we can bring him in and not really know how we’re going to use him at this point and just continue to watch each day and make our adjustments as we go.”
The starter behind the plate for Game 3 will be announced Tuesday, but A.J. Pierzynski seems like the likely candidate. The veteran backstop has played in 30 postseason games, hitting an even .300 in 114 October plate appearances. He also hits .278 off Tuesday’s starter Tim Hudson, driving in three runs in his 18 at bats against him. Couple that with his familiarity of St. Louis’ starter John Lackey, and he is a strong choice to replace Molina.
Matheny added Pierzynski to the roster as a third catcher for the series, though he made it clear Monday the move wasn’t precipitated by any indications of Molina struggling with health issues.
“No none. This guy’s such a warrior and we had no warning until that first at bat,” he said, referencing Molina’s obvious discomfort after a single in the second inning of Game 2. “It was basically trying to have A.J. there and have his presence as a left-handed bat where we can possibly go with he or Oscar in the middle innings and then also have a bat with the ability to change the game late.”
Pierzynski may now have a much more pronounced role. It would add a touch of drama if he were to start Tuesday, since the controversial catcher has a history with the Bay Area. Pierzynski played for the Giants in 2004, and the split would generously be described as acrimonious.
“I know he’s looking forward to his warm reception here and San Francisco tomorrow,” Matheny said with a smile.
If the 37-year-old can help get the series back to St. Louis, he may be greeted with a standing ovation from the Cardinal faithful.