With Cruz behind the plate, Cards haven’t missed a beat

ST. LOUIS — Yadi Molina hasn’t caught a game for the Cardinals in seven whole days and won’t for at least eight more.

And guess what?

The Cardinals’ world has not shattered. Despite not having the services of the frontrunner for the NL MVP, the Cardinals still look pretty much like the Cardinals.

They trailed the Pirates in the NL Central by 2.5 games when Molina’s right knee forced him to the disabled list, and their deficit stood at 2 games heading into Wednesday night’s contest against the Dodgers.

Tony Cruz, formerly known as the rarely used backup, has done just fine, thank you very much.

The Cardinals have gone 4-2 in Cruz’s starts since Molina left the lineup and the opposition has scored a total of 14 runs in those games. Adam Wainwright might have shook off Cruz more in one start than he shakes off Molina in half a season but otherwise, Cruz has been in control.

Surprised? The Cardinals insist they aren’t.

“This is the same guy we’ve seen,” manager Mike Matheny said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of doubt of what Tony could do. When you have a player like Yadi, you often fall into situation like we’ve had. We want to keep watching what he does because he does it so well. But never has that been because of a lack of faith or trust in Tony Cruz.”

Just because Cruz has been a model backup doesn’t mean he isn’t equipped to play regularly. Instead of pouting about all the bench-warming, Cruz uses his time working alongside the game’s best catcher to soak up as much knowledge as he can. He not only watches video, attends meetings and talks constantly with Molina, he also sits in the dugout and calls pitches as if he were playing.

“I don’t have it right all the time but my goal is to call a similar game to what he’s doing,” Cruz said.

Cruz also can pick up pointers watching Molina hit, too. Cruz has gone 7 for 24 with a double, homer and six RBIs in Molina’s absence. On Tuesday, he singled off Clayton Kershaw to drive in the Cardinals’ first run, then scored from third on an infield grounder with what proved to be the winner. “That was a huge hit,” Matheny said.

The Cardinals drafted Cruz more for his bat than his glove when they made him a 26th-round pick in 2007. After a year of splitting time between third and first base, the Cardinals converted him to full-time catching in 2008. He spent at least one season at each level before arriving in the majors in 2011.

He knew playing time would be hard to come by, and he hasn’t been wrong. Molina leads the majors in games started behind the plate since 2011, leaving Cruz with mostly late-inning mop-up appearances and the spot start.

The past week has been the first time he’s started games on as many as four consecutive days since he was in the minors. And yes, he is enjoying the opportunity even if it has meant spending a little more time in the training room.

“It’s a dream come true when you come up and get to play in the big leagues,” Cruz said. “But to come out here and be able to play, I still take it like that first day.”

Like any 26-year-old, Cruz wants someday to be a real regular catcher. “I don’t think anybody wants to be a backup forever,” he said.

But he knows this run as a regular is likely to end sooner than later as long as Molina continues to heal as the Cardinals say he is.  Matheny said Molina played catch on Tuesday and will be resuming more baseball activities anytime. The club remains optimistic that Molina will be able to return Aug. 15, the first day he is eligible to come off the DL.

Ever the team guy, even Cruz looks forward to Molina’s return.

“He is an MVP guy. As I’ve said, you can’t replace that guy,” Cruz said. “We’ll be more than glad to have him back.”

Until then, Cruz has shown he can keep the Cardinals’ world from falling apart.

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