MILWAUKEE -- Three short days and three long losses ago, the Cardinals whiffed and waited their way to a loss in Philadelphia, despite two home runs from Yadier Molina. They followed a similar script Saturday against the Brewers, though this time, Molina's power was enough to survive with a win.Backed
MILWAUKEE -- Three short days and three long losses ago, the Cardinals whiffed and waited their way to a loss in Philadelphia, despite two home runs from Yadier Molina. They followed a similar script Saturday against the Brewers, though this time, Molina's power was enough to survive with a win.
Backed by a strong start by Miles Mikolas, what his manager called "the best game" of Molina's career powered the Cardinals to an essential 3-2 victory at Miller Park.
Molina cranked a solo homer off Chase Anderson in the second and the go-ahead shot off Jeremy Jeffress in the sixth to cap a banner road trip for the eight-time All-Star. With five home runs in his last six games, Molina moved into a tie for the National League lead among catchers with 11. Now in his age-35 season and 15th campaign with the Cardinals, Molina set the Major League mark for most games caught with one club earlier in the week.
"What he's doing behind the plate is willpower," Mike Matheny said. "Being able to handle pain and discomfort … He's smarter at the plate. He has such a great idea, and he's dangerous, obviously. It's hard to say, if he kept playing where he'd be right now in the home run column and a number of others."
Though the Cardinals largely weathered the month Molina spent on the disabled list, his importance has been plain to see over this recent slide, which has been full of one-run games and all-or-nothing offensive efforts. Saturday provided a microcosm of the pros and pitfalls of that approach -- as well as their dependance on Molina.
His two homers accounted for half of St. Louis' hits. Behind the plate, he guided Mikolas across 6 2/3 strong frames, and three young relievers through two precarious late-inning jams.
"When I signed here, I was so excited to play with him, and to see the caliber of player he still is at this age is incredible," said Bud Norris, who rebounded from Friday's walk-off loss to notch his 14th save. "Everybody is leaning on him right now. It was a big fall when he left, and we're ecstatic to have him back."
Molina sent both of his long balls to the opposite field: He drove a 3-1 four-seamer from Anderson off the terrace beyond the right-center-field wall and inside-outed an 0-1 Jeffress heater just beyond the yellow home run line. That was enough to make Mikolas a winner for the eighth time, and ensure St. Louis avoided its ninth loss in 11 games.
"The most important thing for us is to win games, so that's what's on my mind," Molina said. "We have to get back on track, and that was the mentality today."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Mikolas surrendered only a lone single after the Brewers manufactured their two tallies in the first, retiring 16 in a row before walking Brad Miller with one out in the seventh. He then gave way to Jordan Hicks after a Jedd Gyorko error pushed the tying run into scoring position a batter later. After a brief injury scare, Hicks retired Manny Pina to escape the threat.
The Cardinals again flirted with the dramatic in the eighth, when Austin Gomber and Sam Tuivailala combined to load the bases for Jesus Aguilar, Milwaukee's hottest hitter and Friday night's hero. The situation drew an interesting parallel to Wednedsay's loss in Philadelphia, when Tuivailala allowed a go-ahead homer to spoil Molina's last multi-homer effort. This time, the righty coaxed a harmless grounder out of Aguilar to end the threat.
"That's the guy we didn't want to beat us again," Molina said. "That was the game right there."
No longer an all-or-nothing quirk the Cardinals can shrug off, a dependance on power has become more than a defining trait of their offense. They struck out 13 times Saturday, ballooning their strikeout rate to 25.8 percent over the last two weeks. That ranks third highest in the NL during that span; their 23.1-K rate places sixth among NL clubs.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Inserted for defensive purposes in the eighth, second baseman Kolten Wong made an immediate impact on a play Molina called a "game changer." With a runner on and no out, Gomber elicited a slow roller off the bat of Eric Thames. Wong opted to tag the runner instead of turn a traditional double play, "then had the quick hands to have enough on the ball" to get Thames at first, Matheny said.
Despite his .186/.284/.308 slash line, Wong entered play tops among NL second basemen with 11 Defensive Runs Saved.
HICKS STAYS IN
Matheny admitted to being "a little gun-shy" with his pitchers, given the rash of injuries to hit the Cardinals' staff. That apprehension was on display in the seventh, when Matheny and the training staff rushed out to check on Hicks following the rookie's first pitch. Matheny said something looked "atypical" and "different" in Hicks' warmup pitches, prompting the visit.
"He didn't have the crispness. It wasn't the same. We watch him so much, we catch things that don't look right," Matheny said. "But he said he was good. But let's check. Let's find out for sure."
Statcast™ backs that up: Hicks' first pitch to Pina registered at 96.3 mph -- unusually low for the rookie who typically lives in the triple digits. Hicks' next four pitches clocked in at least 99 mph. His final one hit 101.3 mph and resulted in Pina's inning-ending groundout.
HE SAID IT
"When you're in tune with your catcher, it seems like we're reading each other's minds out there. It makes you confident in your stuff." -- Mikolas
Thanks to Saturday's one-run victory, the Cardinals can salvage a split of this four-game series by taking Sunday's finale. Luke Weaver (3-6, 4.69) gets the ball for St. Louis, eyeing his first win since May 11. The right-hander has allowed four runs in each of his last three starts. Jhoulys Chacin (6-2, 3.18) counters for Milwaukee, with first pitch set for 1:10 p.m. CT from Miller Park.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.