Molina's mitt makes bat a bonus

Friday, June 9, 2006
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina talked with pitcher Jason Marquis during a recent game. Molina's defense and handling of the pitchers made it easy for the Cardinals to wait out his early problems with the bat. (Associated Press)

After a slow start, the Cardinals catcher is heating up at the plate.

ST. LOUIS -- Yadier Molina's impeccable defense behind the plate made it easy for the St. Louis Cardinals to wait out his early season stupor with the bat.

The Cardinals were the last team in the major leagues without a home run from their catchers until Molina connected on Monday. He finally inched his average above .200 two days before that, beginning to provide at least a little pop at the bottom end of the order.

"Offensively, I feel many times stronger," Molina said. "I feel better, I'm seeing the ball better, I feel more comfortable at the plate."

For most of the first two months, though, his contributions were more subtle. The youngest of three catching brothers in the major leagues, Molina, only 23 yet entering his second full season as the starter, handled the pitchers well enough that any offense was a bonus.

Manager Tony La Russa has often said, only half-jokingly, that Molina is so good defensively that the team needed next to nothing from him at the plate. Last year he picked off nine runners and this year he already has three pickoffs, one of them catching the Padres' Brian Giles napping at first to end the game.

Backup catcher Gary Bennett shakes his head in wonder at Molina's polish at such a young age.

"The first time I was called up I was 23 years old and there was no way I was ready to go out there and play on anything close to a regular basis," Bennett said. "I was so far over my head it was ridiculous.

"I think the thing about Yaddy that's most impressive is there's really no weakness in his game. He's pretty solid and he's only going to get better."

Molina is 9-for-20 throwing out base-stealers this year and above 50 percent for his career. And he's durable: Molina played all 14 innings in a five-hour loss to the Cubs on Friday night that ended past midnight, then started in a day game the next day.

"His offense is important to him," manager Tony La Russa said. "He doesn't want to be known and he shouldn't be known as a defensive catcher.

"Having him get some confidence is good for him, but any time he can get some hits is very important."

Molina matched his career high with four hits last Friday against the Cubs, then followed it up with two hits and three RBIs the next day. He was 11-for-30 during a seven-game hitting streak before going 0-for-4 on Wednesday.

He also had to battle out of a slump last year, when he became the youngest Opening Day starter in the National League since Jason Kendall broke in at 21 with the Pirates in 1996, then found himself playing catchup after a 1-for-31 start.

Molina finished at .252 with eight homers and 49 RBIs, and La Russa notes that he always hit in the minors, too.

"At the end of the year," La Russa said, "the numbers will be there."

Noteworthy

The Cardinals begin a six-game trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh tonight, perhaps a nice getaway after a 3-6 homestand. It's their first losing homestand at new Busch Stadium. ... Closer Jason Isringhausen, deemed unavailable the past two games after blowing two saves in three appearances, expects to pitch if needed today. The Cardinals didn't need him during his two days off, deemed a physical and mental break.

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