ST. LOUIS -- Of all the accomplishments and accolades stockpiled over his 15-year career, Yadier Molina is most prideful about his durability. Even at age 35, Molina started 30 of the Cardinals' first 31 games this year, and at least 110 every season since 2005.
That streak now appears to be in jeopardy. The Cardinals are expecting to be without their leader behind the plate for at least a month after Molina required emergency surgery Saturday night following a pelvic injury with traumatic hematoma. The operation came after Molina left Saturday's 8-6 win over the Cubs, the victim of a badly placed foul ball.
"When you think of his role in the organization, he's been our unofficial captain for well over a decade," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "There will be lots of parts of him that will be missed, but now we have a situation where somebody has to step up."
In the top of the ninth inning of St. Louis' 10-inning, walk-off win, the Cubs' Kristopher Bryant got a piece of a 101.5-mph fastball from flamethrowing Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks and redirected it between Molina's legs. Molina struggled to breathe for several minutes as he was attended to by the Cardinals' training staff before exiting the game, after which club officials scrambled to gauge the severity of the injury.
As the club's top catching prospect, Carson Kelly was soon scratched from the starting lineup at Triple-A Memphis and summoned to St. Louis. The Cardinals activated Kelly prior to Sunday's series finale against Chicago, as well as right-hander Mike Mayers.
Mayers joins the bullpen in place of Dominic Leone, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list with right upper arm nerve irritation. Leone exited after throwing two warmup pitches in Friday's series-opening win due to the issue, which was first described as a biceps cramp.
Club officials said Kelly will receive the bulk of the playing time in Molina's absence, though Francisco Pena started behind the plate Sunday against the Cubs. Kelly, 23, hit .174 in 75 plate appearances backing up Molina in 2017. He was hitting .234 with a pair of home runs and 11 RBIs in 21 games at Triple-A this season.
"Last year was a different story from this year," said Kelly, who was promoted last summer mainly to learn from Molina. "For however long I'm here, I'm going to do whatever I can to contribute to this team."
Teammates spoke in worried whispers after Molina walked off the field, under his own power but in obvious pain, then speculated over his condition for much of Saturday night. Pena was part of a small group to hold vigil at the hospital, a faction that included Molina's brother, Bengie, now a Spanish-language broadcaster for the club.
"I wanted to let him know I'm there for him, as a teammate, as a friend," Pena said. "It's not always baseball. Being there for him is the most important thing."
Bengie was waiting at Yadi's house when he returned home, some 12 hours after surgery.
"I expected him to be in a wheelchair, needing a little help," Bengie said. "He was walking. He didn't want a wheelchair. He didn't want anything."
Mozeliak said Molina will spend his first week post-op "quietly," a suggestion several in the organization said could be challenging for the ultra-competitive catcher. Matheny texted him "telling him to make sure to go easy," the manager said. The older Molina joked the doctors would need to "cuff him down somewhere" to keep him from testing the injury too soon.
No catcher has started more games behind the plate since he debuted in 2004 than Molina, who recently passed Johnny Bench for 16th on the all-time games-caught list. He has not missed significant time due to injury since 2014, when torn ligaments in his thumb truncated his season by seven weeks. Molina also missed 26 games due to a fractured wrist in '07.
He was hitting .272 with six home runs and 17 RBIs this year, though his trademark defensive skills were rated atypically down by some metrics. Kelly, whom the Cardinals hope can be the eventual successor to Molina in St. Louis, is the club's No. 3 prospect per MLB Pipeline. He is also the No. 44 overall prospect in baseball and the No. 2 catching prospect.
"I'm sure it's beating him up inside his heart right now, thinking 'how can I miss this?'" Bengie said. "At the same time, it's a surgery and it's serious. He knows he has to spend time away."