Yadi tested early by play at plate in debut

March 9th, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. -- Still healing from an injury sustained last September, Yadier Molina started his first spring game on Wednesday and promptly tested his surgically repaired left thumb with the same swipe tag that caused the injury.

Molina not only made the play at the plate to keep the Marlins from scoring a second-inning run, but he also did so without consequence in the Cardinals' 5-3 loss. Pumping his fist after placing the tag on Justin Bour, Molina finished that frame and one more before being removed for a pinch-hitter.

"It was fun to be out there with the team," Molina said. "Today was a good test, and I feel good. But we have to wait until tomorrow and see how I wake up and keep progressing. Hopefully we stay in line with [the program] and keep progressing."

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The Cardinals wanted to get Molina involved in Grapefruit League play as soon as the medical team provided the necessary clearance. That came this week, nine days after he caught his first side session in camp. Molina wore a protective splint during Wednesday's appearance and was pulled before his place in the order came up.

Molina was tested early. He took a throw from center fielder Randal Grichuk and swiped at Bour to record the out. The play was reminiscent of the one that tore ligaments in Molina's thumb, leaving him compromised for the 2015 postseason and requiring two offseason procedures.

"I was ready," Molina said of the play. "I wasn't thinking about anything. I just tried to get the guy out, and I'm glad that everything went right."

Manager Mike Matheny said he did not flinch watching Molina take the throw from center.

"One, he's got the splint on," Matheny began. "And two, [last year] it was a fluke play. That play happens all the time. It didn't cross my mind."

It will be some time before Molina is cleared to take swings in a Grapefruit League game. He resumed swinging a bat on Tuesday and has only taken cuts off soft-tossed pitches. Joining his teammates for batting practice will be the next step.

In the meantime, the Cardinals will continue to work creatively to get Molina in-game defensive work. He's likely to make another start on Friday, when he can catch Carlos Martinez's spring debut.

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"We'd like to be as aggressive as we can," Matheny said. "[The medical staff] is kind of designing this and has some ideas, but they're watching each day how he responds so if there is anything that doesn't look right, we'll just pause and stay where we are. … But overall strength, they've been measuring it, and he's been doing very good. That's reassuring."

Though Matheny assumes ligaments in Molina's thumb were already weakened last year due to the attrition of the position, the Cardinals hope to prevent similar injuries by revisiting how the organization teaches its catchers to set up for plays at the plate.

Rule changes made two years ago to prevent home-plate collisions required catchers to alter their positioning and mindset for plays at home. The Cardinals adapted by encouraging their catchers to leave the lane down the third-base line open when receiving a throw and then applying a swipe tag like the one Molina made on Anthony Rizzo last Sept. 20.

That approach is being tweaked this spring.

"You almost become so timid that you don't defend yourself as well, maybe," Matheny said. "You don't know exactly what the baserunner is going to do, and you kind of get out of your normal routine. … Yadi went down and did that play perfectly. The slide wasn't a dirty slide. He just got himself in a compromised position."

That new approach, Matheny continued, could include having his catchers revert back to using aggressive two-handed tags when there is time to do so.

"We're talking about how to do that a little different way that mixes the aggressiveness with the old style while still permitting the lane for a tag," Matheny said. "It's more mindset than anything else. This has just evolved."