'A special moment:' Knizner's emotional HR

August 7th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- There wasn’t much catcher needed to say. He began his night with a prodigious blast, letting the bat simply fly out on the follow through of his first homer of the season and the Cardinals’ first run on Thursday night. And he punctuated it with a cheeky fist pump, after he corralled a ball in the dirt in front of him and nabbed Joc Pederson trying to take second to erase Atlanta's leadoff man in the seventh inning.

And there wasn’t much Knizner felt like he was obliged to say. Just days prior to his rare start in Thursday’s series finale loss to the Braves, his maternal grandfather, Robert DeBernard -- a veteran of the National Guard who later worked three decades in public works -- passed away.

“That was a special moment for me,” Knizner said on Thursday. “He was with me with that swing. … Happy I could hit that one. I wish he could have seen it in person, but I know he was watching.”

Truthfully, there hasn’t been much Knizner has been able to say over the course of his career. He’s been stuck behind a likely Hall of Famer in Yadier Molina on the depth chart ever since he began to creep towards the Major Leagues. Molina is eternal in the St. Louis baseball sphere; Knizner has simply been attempting to break in.

So Knizner’s only choice has been to let his play do the talking. And when it does, as it did on Thursday, it evidently comes with a little swagger.

“Considering it, I think it was his first one, maybe he was practicing in the cage, I’m not sure,” manager Mike Shildt joked of Knizner’s bat toss ahead of Friday’s series opener against the Royals. “But I thought it was still appropriate. He got it.”

Knizner has been healthy over the entirety of the 2021 season, yet he’s only appeared in 41 games. He’s performed admirably when he’s gotten consistent playing time, highlighted by him reaching base nine times in 13 plate appearances across three games in Cincinnati as Molina battled a neck injury in late July -- but those chances have been sparse.

That’s been for no fault of Knizner’s. He’s caught five shutouts when playing behind the plate the entire nine innings in his 27 starts this season, compared to Molina’s total of four in 80 starts. It wasn’t a shutout for Knizner on Thursday, but he helped navigate Wade LeBlanc to six innings of two-run ball -- his longest outing of the season -- before an eighth-inning bullpen meltdown sunk the Cardinals.

It was also manifested in making that heady play in the seventh inning, when Knizner wasn’t able to squeeze a low 96.7 mph fastball from Génesis Cabrera, but fired a 82.6 mph one-hopper from a standing position to cut down Pederson trying to take second.

It wasn’t necessarily an aberration. Both Knizner and shortstop Edmundo Sosa have made it a habit of not just filling in capably when they’re called upon to start, but making some highlight-reel plays to boot. Sosa, who starts far more than Knizner, made a sensational play when he kick-started a double play in a walk-off win over the Cubs on July 21.

That’s become incumbent.

“The one thing you want to create clarity is, we expect our players to contribute,” Shildt said. “It’s the St. Louis Cardinals -- we expect the guys on our club to contribute. It can be a challenge to contribute when you're not playing as often or as regularly. …

“Pleased that those guys are able to do it, stay prepared. But again, we have to reinforce our expectations for this organization. If you're on the roster of the St. Louis Cardinals, you're helping a team be competitive for a World Series.”

Knizner’s path to regular starting time likely won’t get easier in the near future. Molina has expressed his interest in potentially playing another year, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this week that he hopes to finalize an extension sooner than later.

Wherever Molina plays, Knizner will have to wait for his playing time. And there’s not much to say behind someone like Molina.

There are only bats to be dropped.

Bird droppings

• Jordan Walker, St. Louis' first-round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, joined MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects ranks after Wander Franco’s graduation on Friday. Walker, the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect, is one of the highest-ceiling prospects in the club's system and is expected to rise through the ranks.

• Friday’s series opener against Kansas City did not mark Mike Matheny’s return to Busch Stadium -- he managed the Royals in St. Louis last season -- but it was his first game with fans in the stands. Matheny was let go by the Cardinals in July 2018, after which Shildt took interim duties and later was hired as the permanent manager before the '19 season.