Molina chomping at the bit to make return, but rest will be key going forward

ST. LOUIS — Except for writing his name in the batting order, the Cardinals have given every indication that Yadier Molina’s right knee has healed and he will return to the lineup Thursday afternoon.

“Things look good right now,” manager Mike Matheny said before Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates.

“I’m happy to be back tomorrow,” said Molina before realizing he might have broken team protocol and spoken a tad prematurely. “It’s not fun when you’re on the DL even if the team is going good. Right now, I’m trying to get back tomorrow.”

While there is little doubt that Molina will play Thursday, what about Friday? Saturday? And next week, next month and, if all goes well for the Cardinals, October?

Those are the real questions.

Molina, 31, went on the disabled list two weeks ago because of inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. This followed a stretch of playing 11 games in 12 days coming out of the All-Star break, which came after he had been rested for three days in early July when his right knee became an issue.

Don’t expect him to endure such a busy stretch during the 43 games remaining in the regular season. Matheny says the club has developed a plan for Molina’s playing time and though the manager understandably wasn’t specific, he said, “We’re going to have to be careful.


”We have an idea (of his schedule), but it’s going to have to adjust to how he feels.”

Don’t look for Molina to make their job easier.

“Now is not the time to rest,” he said after batting practice Wednesday. “Right now, you have to give whatever you can because it’s only a month and a half (left).”

Rest is helpful, Molina admitted, “But right now, my team needs me.” The Cardinals had gone 6-7 with Molina on the DL before Wednesday night.

Even after his 15-day stay on the DL, Molina has caught more innings than all but two catchers in the majors this season. When he went on the DL, Molina was hitting .330 and trailed in the NL batting race by one point. His deficit to Braves third baseman Chris Johnson was up to seven points entering Wednesday night.

While the Cardinals would like to keep his bat in the lineup as much as possible, Matheny did not talk like playing Molina at first would provide much of a way to rest his knees.

“First base is a spot on this club where when we have an opening, we have another kid we like to see in there, too,” Matheny said, referring to lefty slugger Matt Adams. “That’s really been kind of difficult at multiple times in the season. We could have used him at first but not when we’re still trying to get Adams the playing time he needs to have.”

If he’s not at first, Molina likely will be relegated to pinch-hitting duties at least once and perhaps even twice a week. It would seem unlikely that he would get behind the plate on any day game after he has caught the previous night. The Cardinals still have eight situations when they play in the afternoon following a night game.

The Cardinals have finished their most grueling portion of the schedule but still do not have an inordinate number of days off remaining. Beginning Thursday, they play 14 more days before a scheduled off day. Following that are 10- and 16-game stretches between off days, before one final off day before a season-ending three-game series against the Cubs.

Asked if he thinks his knee can be 100 percent the rest of the way, Molina replied,  “I hope so.”

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com