The Cardinals hoped to avoid it, giving their veteran catcher a rare pair of days off over the weekend. But when Yadier Molina called manager Mike Shildt on Tuesday morning, there was no more ignoring it.
St. Louis placed Molina on the injured list with a right foot tendon strain prior to Tuesday’s tilt against the Phillies, putting a prolonged pause on the best offensive start of his career after days of tinkering. The Cardinals have tapped 26-year-old backup Andrew Knizner as the starter for the foreseeable future.
The Cardinals are hopeful Molina’s IL stay can be minimal, though Shildt also acknowledged there was hope that Molina could avoid a stint on the shelf altogether.
“We hope, obviously, but hope isn’t always a strategy,” Shildt said. “We'll just try not to put any parameters on it, we’ll let the medical team guide it with Yadi. … It's a long season, so we want to be prudent about it. Obviously, we want to get him back, no one more than Yadi wants to be back.”
Molina leads the Cardinals in almost every offensive category, slashing .323/.366/.631 with a 177 OPS+ over his first 19 games -- every mark save for on-base percentage would be a career high. The 38-year-old hurt his foot legging out an RBI double in the third inning of Friday’s win, then aggravated it on his at-bat in the fifth inning and was promptly removed from the game.
After a return to the lineup on Monday following two days off -- he went 0-for-3 in the loss to Philly -- Molina reported not recovering well on Tuesday and said he was rather immobile, though all imaging to this point has come back clean.
The Cardinals have not expressed worry that Molina could exacerbate the issue from playing on it, but it’s rather a question of availability and capability enduring through it.
“It was a tolerance issue,” Shildt said, “but it's really a place of discomfort that it really doesn’t allow you to do a whole lot.”
So now the line falls to Knizner, the former top prospect who has impressed in many facets since he debuted in 2019. Playing behind the seldom-rested Molina, Knizner has had to adopt a “If you stay ready, you never have to get ready” motto, he said recently.
That was kicked into high gear with two starts over the weekend after catching six pitchers over the final four innings of Friday’s win in relief of Molina, including navigating Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes through a turbulent final frame for the win.
Knizner has a .702 OPS through 21 plate appearances entering Tuesday. He recorded a base hit in each of his first four starts, including a huge insurance RBI double in the sixth inning of Saturday’s win over Cincinnati -- a two-bagger just mere feet from being a roundtripper.
“He's waiting in the wings and earned it, played well,” Shildt said. “And now it's more of a consistent opportunity for him.”
Knizner’s impressions have not been in doubt, but he turned heads this offseason with a dedicated film regime to improve his game-calling. Last Wednesday, he guided Carlos Martínez to his best start in nearly three years.
The Cardinals are in the midst of 17 games in 17 days. Knizner will start the overwhelming amount of them, but that gauntlet of a stretch will require him to get some days off.
Now behind him the Cardinals have Sánchez, who was acquired from the Mets in exchange for cash considerations this past offseason. Sánchez profiles mostly as a defense-first option, though the club came away impressed with some of the at-bats he strung together in Spring Training.
“Had an understanding of what he was doing, worked well with the pitchers and did his homework, which I was pleased and impressed about,” Shildt said. “Not to take it for granted, but he did it, and clearly a guy that is conscious about preparing, which he fits right in, in that regard.”