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Catcher Yadier Molina takes off his helmet in the Cardinals dugout on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Miami. He had two hits in his return from the injury list. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

MIAMI — It starts now for the Cardinals. It has to. With the Cardinals playing the last-place Marlins seven times in 11 days, the Cards are in the midst of what could be the least-challenging part of their schedule.

Of their next 36 games, after their 7-1 drubbing of Miami on Tuesday, the Cardinals, who are one game over .500, will play 33 of them against teams that started the day at .500 or worse. The only exception is a three-game set at home after the All-Star break. They then play Arizona, which is 35-33 after losing Tuesday to the Phillies.

Besides the Marlins, the Cardinals have four games with the New York Mets, three with the Los Angeles Angels, two with Oakland, three against San Diego (at .500 before Tuesday), three against Seattle, three with San Francisco, seven with Pittsburgh and four with Cincinnati.

The traditional logic in contending for or winning a division championship is to hold one’s own against the top teams and beat up on the lesser clubs. Even including a four-game sweep in early April of the National League’s top team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cardinals are 16-19 against teams with winning records.

They have played nine fewer games against losing clubs and are 16-11. Against San Diego, they are 1-2, adding to 33-32.

“We’ve played a tough schedule up to this point,” Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said. “You look at where the Cubs are right now. Well, they’ve already played the Marlins twice.”

The Cubs are playing at Colorado and Los Angeles (Dodgers) the rest of the week while the Cardinals are here and then at New York (Mets) and then have Miami for four at home.

“We could look up at the end of this week either tied or back in the saddle . . . but regardless of who we’re playing, we’ve just got to be more consistent,” Carpenter said. “We’ve played a tough schedule but the guys in the clubhouse believe we’re just as good as any team we’ve played. The good news is that we’ve got a stretch of games here where (1) we can really take care of business and (2), probably most importantly, build some confidence and momentum.”

MOLINA ACTIVATED, STARTS

Cardinals catchers Matt Wieters and Andrew Knizner hadn’t had a hit in their last 27 at-bats, 20 by Wieters, before Tuesday. But all that changed, with the earlier-than-expected activation from the injured list of nine-time All-Star and Gold Glover Yadier Molina.

Molina, who last had played on May 28 because of discomfort from a right thumb tendon strain, was back in the lineup Tuesday and was two for five and scored a run.  He now is hitting .268 with 33 runs batted in in his 51 games. He hit fifth Tuesday night. Knizner was optioned to Class AAA Memphis.

After taking batting practice outside and catching a bullpen session on Monday, Molina determined that it "was a good day. Everything went well, so I’m back.”

It had been projected that Molina would return on Thursday but he said, “I don’t like to surprise anyone. But I don’t want to put (out) a date and then don’t be (ready) on that date. I like to take my time and see how it is.”

Manager Mike Shildt said he wasn’t surprised that Molina was ready to go Tuesday.

“I had a hint that it was coming,” Shildt said. “Once he got here yesterday and (got) his feedback about how he felt, I was pretty confident that we were going to have a Yadier Molina sighting in the lineup.”

In the 11 starts Molina missed, the Cardinals went 6-5 but, as mentioned, received little offensive help from the catchers.

Molina played virtually every day before he got hurt. But on Tuesday he said, “I go day by day. I’m going to be playing today and then I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens.”

Shildt, however, didn’t see any problem with Molina playing on back-to-back days.

“When Yadi’s in there, Yadi goes,” Shildt said. “That is a not a concern about him going back to back.

“(Maybe) back to back months,” Shildt joked.

FIRST-ROUND PICK SIGNS

The Cardinals signed their first-round draft pick, lefthander Zack Thompson of the University of Kentucky, and showed him around Busch Stadium on Tuesday. Terms were not announced but the slot value assigned to the 19th pick in the draft had been $3,359,000. Thompson, 21, is believed to be receiving somewhat less than that as the Cardinals try to sign second-round pick Trejyn Fletcher, a high school outfielder who has committed to Vanderbilt.

As a junior this year, Thompson posted a 6-1 record with a 2.40 earned-run average while striking out 130 in 90 innings, with his strikeouts per nine innings ranking 10th in the NCAA statistics.

Thompson will report to Jupiter, Fla., where he will receive his minor-league assignment.

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Rick Hummel is a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.