3:30 p.m. Thursday update: Yadier Molina returns to the Cardinals lineup tonight for the start of a four-game series in Washington. Molina will bat fifth against 2011 Cardinals teammate Edwin Jackson.
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To make it to October and have a chance to defend their World Series championship, the Cardinals will have to earn their way in. Nothing will be handed to them. Nothing will come easy. And just in case we needed a reminder, it surfaced over the final 48 hours of a disappointing series in Pittsburgh.
After winning on Monday and having a chance to bury the Pirates, the Cardinals were chased out of PNC Park on Tuesday and Wednesday. The visitors were crushed by Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, cuffed by Pirates pitchers, and got outscored 14-0 in a truly embarrassing display of baseball.
The Pirates won two of three to boost their sagging morale. The stunned Cardinals, 3-3 on an important road trip, head to Washington for a four-game series against the league's best pitching staff.
If the Cardinals are fortunate, they'll have catcher Yadier Molina back in the lineup for the series in D.C. He is their leader. He is their best player. He is their toughest player. He's the adhesive that often holds the pitching staff together. Molina is their rock of stability.
Of all the things that went wrong in Pittsburgh, the most disturbing scene was watching Molina sprawled on the dirt, vulnerable and helpless. He was laid out by the freight-train impact of Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison, who showed no mercy in a violent but clean charge to home plate.
The blow was so fierce, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell may try to blame it on the New Orleans Saints. Was that Josh Harrison that launched his shoulder into Molina's head? Or did we miss the news release when the Pirates signed nasty Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison to serve as a pinch runner?
The collision was scary and ugly. But when the dirt and the dust cleared, Molina still had possession of the baseball. Harrison didn't score. He was denied. Harrison may have turned Molina into a 10 pin, and he knocked Molina out of the game, but he couldn't dislodge the baseball from Molina's indomitable grip.
That's why Harrison stood and applauded in a gesture of respect when Molina wobbled off the field, and into the trainer's room to clear his head. Molina was as rigid and unyielding as any steel produced in the mills around Pittsburgh.
No one knows how Molina managed to hold on, absorbing the brunt of an unsettling crash to make this gutsy play in a 9-0 lost cause. Well, no, that isn't quite right. The former hard-shell catcher, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, understood why Molina refused to surrender there.
"He's legitimately the toughest guy in this league," Matheny said.
Despite the ridiculous setback in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals remain in an upright position for the playoff chase. But when Molina went down, hearts sank in the Cardinals' dugout. When Molina tried to rise, only to fall to his knees, throats clutched in St. Louis.
Fortunately, Molina should be all right. Harrison couldn't break him. There was no concussion. The man must have an awfully hard head, and we offer that as a compliment.
Molina was diagnosed with strains to his shoulder, neck and back. But it will be an anxious time until Molina reappears in his catcher's armor. Molina's presence is so valuable, it's unthinkable to imagine him missing from the lineup for an extended period of time.
The repercussions would be severe, especially at this late stage. There's been plenty of advance talk about the NL's most valuable player award. There are several candidates for the prize, and the names you hear most often are Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen, San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, and Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday.
Nationally, Molina's name doesn't get much attention in the MVP speculation. Locally, Cardinals fans know the truth. With no disrespect to Holliday, whom I admire, Molina is the team's MVP. How could the baseball writers possibly bestow the award on another Cardinal, when Molina is the team's most irreplaceable player?
This isn't about batting stats. Holliday is having an exceptional season, ranking in the league's top 10 in runs, hits, doubles, extra-base hits, homers, RBIs, batting average, onbase percentage, slugging, and total bases.
Not that Molina has to apologize for his offense; he's turned into a potent and consistent hitter. He's fourth in the NL in batting average, 10th in onbase percentage, 12th in slugging and is hitting .348 with runners in scoring position.
Molina is the gold standard defensively among MLB catchers. The four-time Gold Glove winner leads the majors (again) in catching stealers, throwing 'em out at a rate of 46.2 percent. He's imaginative and intelligent in calling pitches. He plays a major role in the strategy sessions to plan the approach against opposing hitters. The pitchers lean on Molina for leadership. Molina can do it all. Heck, Yadi runs as well as a sportswriter but he's still swiped 11 bases in 13 attempts this season.
Former Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, who spent five decades in the big leagues, has said Molina is the best defensive catcher he's ever seen. And there's great value in elite defense at the catcher position.
(As for sabermetric ratings, Molina comes out ahead of Holliday. Molina is worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement. Holliday's WAR is 4.9. The difference? Molina's defensive value. Which underlines our point about Yadi's overall value. Defensively, the catching position is more substantial, obviously, than left field.)
Of all of the statistics we can use to define Molina's value, this is the most telling: over the last four seasons, the Cardinals are 285-219 when Molina starts for a .565 winning percentage. When Molina doesn't start, the team is 53-59 (.473.) This season the Cardinals are 62-44 when Molina starts and 9-15 when he doesn't.
In his final three seasons with the Cardinals, Albert Pujols maintained his status as the best player in baseball. Pujols was incredibly valuable, and durable. But when Pujols didn't start games in 2009-2011, the Cardinals went 14-12.
Granted, that's a small sample size. And I'm not trying to disparage Pujols here. But over his final three years in St. Louis, the Cardinals still found a way to post a winning record when Pujols didn't start.
Given Pujols' greatness, how could that be?
Yadier Molina was working behind the plate. That just about explains everything.
Get well soon, Yadi. After 48 humiliating hours in Pittsburgh, your team needs you.