March 21, 2013 11:05 am •
JUPITER, Fla. • It has been nearly three weeks since his mentor and the Cardinals’ starter at his position left spring training, and while a few things have changed for Tony Cruz — like a tad more playing time — one thing has not.
When he needs advice, he still goes to a Molina.
“Bengie,” Cruz said, referencing the Cardinals new assistant hitting coach. “I’ve been asking him, talking to him.”
The Cardinals expect their catcher, Yadier Molina, to return to camp as early as today after compelling Puerto Rico’s national team to the championship game in the World Baseball Classic. He will find his locker mostly as he left it March 2. A few new pairs of cleats that arrived Tuesday have been tucked onto a shelf. Otherwise, the only thing out of place at his locker the past few weeks has been … him.
Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, who returned to Jupiter on Wednesday night, and Molina have missed the past 18 days of spring training as they competed in baseball’s international tournament. An underdog in later rounds, mainly because of uncertain pitching, Puerto Rico finished as runnerup to the Dominican Republic, losing late Tuesday night 3-0 in the championship game at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Molina did not have an RBI in the tournament, nor did he have an extra-base hit, and yet in every game he played his influence was obvious and later heralded by his teammates.
“Everyone knows Yadier’s abilities,” the national team’s manager Edwin Rodriguez said after the semifinal win against Japan. “And every year the major leagues are really paying attention and (see) he is improving. Everyone knows the numbers, the statistics, but Yadier’s leadership, that’s something you can’t quantify and that’s what we saw today. We saw the energy. We saw the intensity. The way that he plays. The control of the entire game. That’s why Yadier is the best in the world.”
At the end of the championship game, his team scoreless, Molina gathered and led Puerto Rico out onto the field to congratulate Team Dominicana.
Often batting cleanup behind Beltran in Puerto Rico’s lineup, Molina went seven for 27 (.259) with seven singles, two runs scored and a .286 on-base percentage. He had no hits in the semifinal victory against Japan, the two-time defending WBC champ, and yet dictated so much of the game. In one pivotal moment during the eighth inning Sunday, Molina caught a runner trying to steal second base – without a throw. Japan already had a run in and two runners on base when it attempted to take advantage of former Cardinals reliever J.C. Romero’s delivery by putting runners in motion.
The runner at second stopped.
The runner from first did not.
A five-time Gold Glove winner and the only winner in the National League of a Platinum Glove, Molina flipped off his mask and ran out toward second to apply the tag. Japan’s rally fizzled and Puerto Rico won.
“I’ve been managing everywhere – big leagues, Triple-A, winter ball – and it’s a different feeling when you have Yadier behind the plate,” Rodriguez said to reporters. “He takes everything very seriously. He takes his job, because it’s a job for him, to the next level.”
That was a chorus repeated often during the WBC.
Molina shepherded 38-year-old Nelson Figueroa and his below-average velocity through a pinpoint outing and victory against Team USA to advance to the semifinals. Mario Santiago, who wasn’t invited to major-league camp with the Dodgers, pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Japan with Molina as his guide. Both had similar descriptions of their approach.
“I didn’t have to shake him off at all,” Figueroa said.
“I think the key was really,” Santiago told reporters, “following Yadier Molina.”
That isn’t telling the Cardinals anything they don’t already know. Without Molina in camp, the club has been able to get Rob Johnson and J.R. Towles, two catchers ticketed for Class AAA, work with the major-league pitchers. Cruz would have started most days Molina did not, but he said the work has been more consistent this spring.
There are times in games when a pitch selection doesn’t work or a pickoff misfires that Cruz would trot back to the dugout after the inning and ask Molina for advice. Older brother Bengie has filled in with suggestions and thoughts.
Johnson said during the drills before Molina left there was a giving and taking of advice with the catchers. Molina approached him early in spring and said he welcomed any advice or things Johnson saw in his approach. Johnson said Molina helped him with how he gets in position to throw after receiving the ball. Manager Mike Matheny lamented that some of the young pitchers who have already returned to the minors did not get to throw to Molina more often.
The Cardinals’ offense has sputtered at times in Grapefruit League play because of the absences of Beltran and Molina and the injury to David Freese, who is expected back in the lineup this afternoon. The pitchers, meanwhile, have had the chance to get to know his backups, but at least one is ready to get in rhythm with the start.
“I think what we’re missing right now is we know he’s the guy, so you want to get on the same page,” Adam Wainwright said. “We have years of experience pitching and him catching together so that shouldn’t take long. It’s nice when you work through spring training and they really see how your pitches are evolving and the game you’re running out there. It will take some time when he gets back to get back in synch.”
Matheny caught up with Molina’s games via box scores and highlights, and would note to the media each time he read Molina was supposed to get a day off. Wainwright watched one game and saw a slider called for a strike “only because Yadier caught it so well.”
The World Baseball Classic took Beltran and Molina from Puerto Rico to Miami and then out to San Francisco for the various rounds of play, all in less than three weeks. Matheny said he expects to give both his WBC players a few days off before stuffing them back into the lineup. They will have about a week left of games before opening day, April 1.
Done sharing their catcher with the world, they’ll be eager to have him back.
“He’s definitely our guy,” Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook said. “Defensively … he sees everything on the field. Especially when you look at the way his offensive numbers have picked up – those are MVP numbers. He’s our MVP. There a lot of superstars on this team but even then with whatever he brings he’s our guy. He’s a step above.”
Feb. 19, 2013: Yadier Molina poses for a portrait during St. Louis Cardinals spring training at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Chris Lee)
Feb. 15, 2013: Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina talks with manager Mike Matheny during St. Louis Cardinals spring training at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Chris Lee)
Feb. 13, 2013: Yadier Molina takes batting practice during St. Louis Cardinals spring training at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Chris Lee).