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BenFred: Yadier Molina, just as Cardinals catcher predicted, is starting to find his form

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Giants Cardinals Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run during the second inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Saturday, May 14, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

He’s getting there.

When Yadier Molina arrived late to Cardinals spring training, the future Hall of Famer told the truth.

He was not in his usual preseason shape. He was going to need some patience after an offseason impacted by personal matters. He was going to share more of the catching workload with Andrew Knizner than he had in the past.

But Molina would get there, he insisted. Just watch. We would see.

We saw Saturday, didn’t we?

Whether you were watching from Busch Stadium or from home while on the COVID IL (like yours truly) you saw Molina guide his Cardinals pitchers to another shutout win.

You saw him smack the first extra-base hit of the game for an offense desperate for power production.

You saw him steal a precious out from the Giants by reading 2021 National League manager of the year Gabe Kapler’s mind.

It was another good day at the office for No. 4, and another good sign his spring-training prediction is going to come true.

On Saturday against the Giants, Molina was a giant.

His 2,128th career hit was oh so close to being his second home run of the season. Leading off in the bottom of the second, he worked Giants starter Jakob Junis to a 2-0 count and took a sinker in the zone for a strike. He didn’t take the next one. Molina’s double off Junis left his bat at 105.6 mph and traveled 400 feet off the top of the Centene sign in right center. It was the hardest and deepest a Cardinal hit a ball all day, including Tommy Edman’s home run.

Molina would later chase Junis from the game with a two-out single in the sixth, but it was the image of the catcher firing up his dugout after his second-inning double that offered a sharp and welcomed contrast to what former Cardinals outfielder turned broadcaster Jim Edmonds had been describing during that second-inning Molina at-bat.

Edmonds is not the first to mention it.

It was whispered before it reached the broadcast.

There was a sense among some around the team before Molina showed up at camp this spring that he might opt for early retirement instead of returning for one more ride.

But he did show up, and things have been trending in the right direction since. The Cardinals bringing Molina’s baseball brother, Albert Pujols, back into the fold sure didn’t hurt the positive development on the Molina front since those uncertain times. Molina made the right call. He deserves a sendoff season, and he has more to give.

It’s going to look different this season, sure. That was clear in spring. It’s about getting the best out of Molina, not getting the most out of him. Confusing the two will leave the Cardinals with regrets come crunch time. Finding the right mix of Knizner and Molina will leave the Cardinals with a catching tandem that should get stronger over the course of the season. Knizner already is showing the benefits of more regular reps. Molina already is showing the benefit of more rest days.

Molina totaled two hits over his first six games this season. He now has just one hit-less game over his last 14. He is 12-for-40 through his last 10 games, with three doubles, a home run and just five strikeouts.

Saturday’s 4-0 win marked the fourth shutout he has called in 20 starts this season.

This one had one shining moment.

Starter Dakota Hudson encountered some turbulence in the fifth. By the time Joc Pederson grounded into a force out for the second out, Joey Bart stood at third base with Pederson on first. Into the box stepped Giants cleanup hitter Mike Yastrzemksi with his team trailing by just one run. Hudson had the dangerous hitter down 0-2, but he didn’t have to finish him off. As soon as he came set for the fourth pitch, Molina stood straight up. Hudson hit him with a chest pass, and Molina fired to Edmundo Sosa, who was running toward the stealing Pederson by the time Pederson got halfway to second.

“It’s a designed play,” Kapler told reporters after the game. “One of our hitters is down in the count, like 0-2. Once we see the ball through to the middle of the diamond, we are taking off (from third) and trying to steal a run. If for some reason Joc can get in a rundown — he did everything he could possibly do in that situation — perhaps the ball moves into the middle of the field and Joey takes off, and there is a play at the plate. When we make that, we take that risk. It’s with the understanding that it’s a very difficult situation for the hitter at the plate to climb out of. And every once in a while, we are going to be safe at second base standing up because there is not going to be a throw. Or the alternative is the ball goes to the middle of the field and we take off and we score, or we look to score.”

Problem was, Bart didn’t break for home. And Molina was way ahead. Molina introduced a third alternative. An easy out.

The Giants TV broadcast during its replay of the pitch out noticed Molina before the pitch subtly reading Kapler’s signs from the Giants dugout.

Molina knew Pederson was stealing before Pederson did.

“Yadi is an experienced catcher,” Kapler said. “He made a good throw down to second base.”

Like I said, Molina is getting there.

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