ST. LOUIS — As what is often the case after a loss — and also commonplace on the final game of a homestand — the Cardinals’ clubhouse was fairly sparse Wednesday night.
The hushed nature was hardly unusual given the box score. Reporters gathered quietly around the locker of the game’s starting pitcher, Jack Flaherty, who had just made his first start of the season. Clubhouse attendants packed bags, players shuffled in and out, and the coaching staff wrapped up its game meetings without much exuberance. But throughout the muted shuffle of the postgame routine, one player never moved.
Still wearing his full uniform, Yadier Molina sat with his chair facing his locker, his back to the room, his face blank, his body language telling. He had gone 0-for-4 on the night with two strikeouts and had committed a rare throwing error to first on a bunt play that led to an unearned run on Flaherty’s line. But his reaction wasn’t based on one disappointing night.
It turns out even the game’s greats have moments of vulnerability.
The Cardinals are preparing to be without their 10-time All-Star catcher for at least a few weeks and will place Molina on the 10-day injured list Friday as the 39-year-old attempts to recover from knee soreness that has winged him most of the 2022 season, The Athletic has learned.
Top catching prospect Ivan Herrera will be recalled from Triple-A Memphis as the corresponding move and will join the team in Boston for a three-game weekend set against the Red Sox. Reserve catcher Andrew Knizner, who has already seen an increase in playing time lately, will receive the bulk of the starts, but the Cardinals are intrigued by what Herrera can offer. The 22-year-old has long been regarded as the organization’s catcher of the future.
There is no definitive timetable for Molina’s return. He received multiple cortisone shots last weekend, and the team wanted to keep him off his feet for 48 hours, though he lobbied to return immediately. Molina was officially cleared Tuesday, when he caught the first game of the Cardinals’ doubleheader against the Pirates, and he started again Wednesday evening. There was measured optimism that after a scheduled day off Thursday, Molina would feel strong enough to catch Adam Wainwright, who is scheduled to start Friday at Fenway Park. The esteemed duo checked off another box in the record books in their most recent start together — the 316th of their careers — when they tied Warren Spahn and Del Crandall for the second-most starts as batterymates in MLB history.
Molina and Wainwright are nine starts away from passing the Detroit duo of Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan (324) for the most all-time. For now, chasing down that prized record will have to wait.
These Cards are all the way in.
With 2⃣0⃣3⃣ victories, Waino & Yadi have the most wins as a starting battery in MLB history. pic.twitter.com/UzVVpHgaE1
—MLB (@MLB) May 16, 2022
When Molina signed a one-year, $10 million contract extension in August 2021, he made it known that the 2022 season would be the last of his decorated 19-year career. But this year has been a far cry from the kind of success that has become synonymous with Molina. He was late to report to an already short spring training because of personal matters and has been attempting to get in shape during the season. He has fought through consistent pain since March, which would explain his low offensive numbers; he’s hitting just .213 with two homers, and his OPS is down to .519.
Regarded as one of baseball’s most competitive forces, no matter the era, Molina pushed himself to the limits until there was no other choice. The Cardinals are hopeful some rest and recovery will alleviate some of his pain, which would obviously make the conditioning process to get back into major-league action much more bearable.
Now the Cardinals must find a solution behind the plate. Knizner has been praised over the past few seasons for his work ethic and preparedness, but he has been exposed offensively lately, struggling with pitch recognition. Opposing pitchers have taken note, with Knizner posting a .198/.283/.257 line in 36 games (30 starts). It’s by far the most consistent playing time the 27-year-old has received at the major-league level, but the production needs to be significantly better, and manager Oli Marmol said as much Sunday.
“We’ve got to start seeing better at-bats out of Kiz,” Marmol said. “He’s working at it, but at some point there has to be a change.”
Marmol elaborated on the subject Monday afternoon.
“When you’re backing up Yadi in the previous years, that’s tough,” he said. “Now that (Knizner) is actually in there three times a week, four times a week, the expectations are no longer ‘trying to find my timing.’ You’re getting a real opportunity, so the expectations are different. He knows that. Now, he’s just got to get going.”
Knizner acknowledged as much, saying he might have become too preoccupied in attempting to revamp his swing to get the ball off the ground more.
“When you go too far one way to fix one problem, maybe something else happens,” he said. “That’s that constant teeter you have to do, especially hitting. Your body is forward one inch, it causes a problem, your body is back one inch, it causes another problem. I’m trying to find that sweet spot and adjust pitch to pitch, swing to swing.”
Knizner has been working on posture and separation this week and on improving his timing and pitch recognition. How he responds to those challenges will be under much scrutiny now that he’s looking at substantial time behind the plate.
Herrera, who debuted in the majors earlier in May when Molina was on the bereavement list, owns an .824 OPS in 110 at-bats for Memphis. Ranked as Keith Law’s No. 4 prospect in the Cardinals system, Herrera has also been lauded for his determination to improve, though there are residual concerns about whether he’s ready for consistent time in the big leagues. Regardless, the Cardinals don’t appear to have much of a choice, as the club once again relies on the depth in its farm system.
The Cardinals always knew missing time was a possibility for Molina this season. He will turn 40 next month and has spent the better part of two decades manning the sport’s most demanding positions. Now, the team will hold its breath and hope one of its most prominent leaders and dedicated spirits doesn’t miss too much time.
(Photo: Aaron Doster/Associated Press)