Not many ever want Tony Cruz to play.
If Cruz is in the game, it means the man who elicits the loudest applause at Busch Stadium is not. And if Yadier Molina isn’t in the game, there is a chance that something’s wrong with Molina.
Now there very well might be.
Molina will be evaluated today after undergoing an X-ray and an MRI exam late Wednesday on his sprained right thumb, which he injured sliding into third base in the Cards’ 5-2 win Wednesday over the Pirates.
Molina made an excellent play on the base paths, advancing from second to third on a grounder to third when third baseman Pedro Alvarez snoozed during his throw to first base. But Molina had to get down to beat the throw across the diamond from Ike Davis at first base, and he got up slowly.
He slid into third feet-first, but used his hands to brace himself and to stay on the base. Often runners are taught to slide with their hands up, as to avoid jams and cleats. Molina’s right hand hit the dirt and the bag, although it’s difficult to determine which caused the injury.
He was examined briefly by a trainer and stayed in the game to run. Molina then caught the next inning before being replaced by Cruz in the bottom of the third.
“He could still feel some irritation,” Cards manager Mike Matheny said. “Any time we have to take him out, it’s pretty bad.”
Molina has been placed on the disabled list three times in his career, most recently for two weeks last August. But before that he went six years without a DL stint, and averaged 135.5 games per season in that span (2008-2013).
It’s unclear how long he might be sidelined, with next week’s All-Star break serving as a built-in rest period. Molina was voted by the fans to start the game, but won’t participate if he’s not well enough to finish a regular-season game.
The Cardinals are expected to make a move to protect themselves before tonight’s series finale against Pittsburgh.
Ed Easley and Audry Perez are the catchers at Class AAA Memphis, and Cody Stanley is hitting .304 at Class AA Springfield. Easley starts more regularly for the Redbirds but Perez, who made his major-league debut last season, is the one on the 40-man roster.
Perez played in two big-league games last September and struck out in his only at-bat. He’s hitting .288 this year for Memphis, but has drawn only two walks in 170 at-bats.
Whoever the Cardinals call up will serve as insurance for Cruz until Molina’s situation is resolved. Cruz has held that job for Molina for the past three seasons.
He rolls his eyes when asked what he’s learned from the six-time All-Star.
“Everything,” he said. “Receiving, blocking, game calling. Anything catching-wise. I’m always asking him questions.”
Most days, the only thing expected of him is that he stays ready — as he was Wednesday, much earlier than usual.
“It was unexpected,” said Cruz, who pinch-hit for Molina in the third and went one for three. “I’m always ready, but you’re not expecting it.”
Molina got his hand taped and expected to hit for himself after catching the top of the third.
“He was convinced he was going back in,” Matheny said. “But we needed to get it looked at.”
Molina was unavailable for comment after the game, and several teammates said they didn’t know specifics of the injury.
If the news of Molina’s departure shocked or rattled Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn in any way, he didn’t show it.
The righty allowed a run in Cruz’s first inning behind the plate, but settled down to blank the Pirates over the next 3 2/3 innings to earn his 10th win. The catching switch didn’t sway him at all.
“We were right in synch as we went on,” Lynn said. “Cruz does a good job of staying in tune with what’s going on throughout the game. He was asking Yadi what pitches I was throwing. That just shows you that he’s ready to go at any time.”
It appears as if the much-maligned Cardinals offense is starting to jump into gear, just as Matheny promised it would. With the win Wednesday, the Cardinals inched up to two games behind first-place Milwaukee.
But they might have lost their All-Star catcher in the process.
Cruz is ready to play. But is this team ready to need him?