ST. LOUIS — If Yadier Molina’s rehab goes as well Thursday night in Springfield, Mo., with the Double-A club, as it did on Wednesday, he could be back in the Cardinals lineup as soon as Friday.
Which would make for a rather remarkable return. When he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb July 11, the club said Molina was expected to miss eight to 12 weeks. A Friday comeback would mark seven weeks since the procedure, showing again how special the Cardinals’ six-time All-Star catcher is.
While Molina can count on being welcomed back with the two warmest receptions of the season at Busch Stadium — first from teammates, then from fans — here’s hoping his return doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last from A.J. Pierzynski in a Cardinals uniform.
It really isn’t expected to.
Molina will be looking to play every day as soon as he’s back, but the Cardinals will be careful. They figure to give him at least a week before penciling his name into the lineup every day. Pierzynski’s presence provides solid insurance for Molina to work off the rust and prove that his thumb has healed enough to handle an everyday load. Because Molina is coming back sooner than anticipated, the Cardinals are likely to exercise even more caution and have him split time behind the plate for a while. For Molina, not having to catch every day could expedite the process of regaining all the strength and mobility in his injured digit.
Pierzynski’s play hasn’t measured up to Molina standards, of course, but no one was expecting that. Pierzynski has given the Cardinals what they hoped for — a better bat than Tony Cruz, a solid defender and a loud voice in the dugout. The Cardinals have gone 21-19 since Molina went out, which includes a 10-8 mark in games that Pierzynski started. They went 10-11 when Cruz started (and beat the Dodgers in George Kottaras’ lone start).
Cruz was hitting .255 before Molina’s injury but has hit only .153 since, making Pierzynski and his .265 batting average even more important. Pierzynski also has given the Cardinals a lift in an area where they didn’t know quite what to expect. Best known for an ability to rub people — particularly opponents — the wrong way, the Cardinals did not expect Pierzynski to disrupt their clubhouse, but they could not be sure.
As it turns out, his personality, best described as loud, has proven to be a positive for the Cardinals. When he’s not playing, Pierzynski typically hangs near the coaching staff in the dugout and, after a teammate does well, is one of the first to offer his congrats. Manager Mike Matheny, not known for his playfulness, even seemed to appreciate when Pierzynski yelled in the dugout, "Hey, we got a lead!" to break the tension as the Cardinals emerged from a rough stretch of games.
His veteran presence also has helped at least two of the club’s young pitchers, Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez. Pierzynski has caught Miller’s past six starts, and while the second-year right-hander continues to seek consistency, he has made positive strides. Pierzynski has done with Miller what he typically does with any pitcher — that is, make him rely on his fastball. But Pierzynski also has shown the flexibility to adjust on the fly. When Miller told him before his most recent start that he had been working on a sinker, it came as news to Pierzynski but he ended up calling for the pitch more than anyone would have figured. Why? Because it was working, he said.
Pierzynski had never caught Martinez -— not even in a warmup session — before the hard-throwing rookie entered in relief against the Reds last week. It was his first game back after two-plus weeks with Triple-A Memphis and he worked two scoreless innings with no issues. Afterward, Matheny pointed out that Pierzynski had called pitches that Martinez had not been throwing. Being a rookie, Martinez might have thought it prudent not to shake off the 17-year veteran.
"I was just trying to throw pitches I thought he could get them out with," Pierzynski said, shrugging.
He added that Martinez shook off only one call, and the outcome was a double by Reds starter Mike Leake. "That was kind of funny," Pierzynski said.
If Molina is activated Friday, the Cardinals will have to decide whether to keep three catchers on the roster. That would seem like an obvious decision, though, since they would need insurance for Molina in case something went wrong. Plus, with rosters expanding to 40 players on Monday, they would not be short-handed elsewhere for long.
In addition to what he can do behind the plate, Pierzynski gives Matheny an experienced option for pinch hitting. He has gone 4 for 8 as a pinch-hitter with the Cardinals, and for his career is 31 for 117 with four homers. Jon Jay and Matt Adams are the only other Cardinals with pinch-hit homers on their resume, and neither everyday player figures to be pinch hitting much in September.
Pierzynski has not worked as a backup much in his career, but at 37 and already released once this season, he is not likely to mind playing second team to Molina. After the Red Sox let him go in early July, Pierzynski said he chose the Cardinals over other teams because of the chance to be on the last team standing for just the second time in his career.
"The ultimate goal is to win," said Pierzynski, who won a World Series with the 2005 Chicago White Sox. "The rest of this stuff is what it’s going to be, but at the end of the day, I’ve won one ring. I’d like to get another."
Much would have to go right for that to happen, with a successful return by Molina at the top of that list. But as Pierzynski has shown, he can help, too.