JUPITER, Fla. -- Yadier Molina returned to the Cardinals' lineup on Friday, but his return behind the plate will have to wait another day. He made his first Grapefruit League start, batting second and playing designated hitter.
“I can’t wait,” Molina said. “This is going to be the most important game of the year. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back.”
Molina has been on a slowed program since undergoing left knee surgery in December, but he is ahead of the March 12 target date for his return.
Greeted by a standing ovation as he strolled to the plate for the first time this spring, Molina brought the fans back to their feet with a line single to left off Nationals starter Patrick Corbin. Even veterans still feel the butterflies.
“I was a little nervous about how I was going to feel,” Molina said. “But that’s a good nervous. Everything feels fine. Everything feels good with my body. I’m just happy to be back and part of the team again.”
Molina's knee was tested somewhat as he made his way around the bases to score one of St. Louis’ three first-inning runs. After easing into third when Jose Martinez’s fly ball was misjudged in right field for a double, he completed his initial journey around the bases on a RBI single by Rangel Ravelo.
“I felt pretty good,” Molina said. “My knee felt normal. Just right now I just need to get my body in game shape. As I play more games I’ll get my timing back and be in baseball shape.”
Molina went the opposite way in his second at-bat, smacking a screaming line drive right at Nats first baseman Matt Adams.
“I feel like I had good balance [at the plate],” Molina said.
Marcell Ozuna spelled Molina in the DH role, going 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts. He could make his spring debut in the outfield as early as Monday.
“His progression looks like throw today, throw to bases tomorrow, evaluation for possibility of Monday in the game,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s doing great.”
Ozuna posted video on Instagram of himself on Thursday during a planned throwing session back in Miami.
“He had Wednesday off from throwing and Thursday was his throwing day,” Shildt said.
Ozuna underwent right shoulder surgery in late October.