ST. LOUIS -- The future arrived on an express train for Yadier Molina.
Mike Matheny's strained right-side muscle stepped up the timetable for the St. Louis Cardinals' 21-year-old prospect, the third of three catching brothers in the major leagues.
Since Matheny was sidelined last week, Molina has gotten the bulk of the playing time. And so far, there have been only raves.
Molina has established immediate rapport with the Cardinals' pitchers, has been solid defensively and is holding his own on offense. To manager Tony La Russa, there are echoes of Albert Pujols' smash debut in 2000.
Pujols was ticketed for a full year in Triple-A before Bobby Bonilla injured his hamstring just before the start of the season. The rest is history: an NL batting title last year and a pair of MVP runner-up finishes the past two seasons.
"It reminds me of Albert," La Russa said of Molina. "I don't know where he's been playing but he plays like he's 30 years old with 10 years in the big leagues."
A good reason might be his family tree. Brothers Bengie and Jose Molina both play for the Anaheim Angels.
"They've talked to me about this game, how this game works," Yadier Molina said. "They've taught me a lot. So, yeah, I feel older than 21 because I'm a lot more comfortable."
Molina's teammates are trying to help ease him into his suddenly pivotal role. So far he's been getting the bulk of the playing time ahead of backup Cody McKay with starts in three of his first four games.
Right-hander Woody Williams encouraged Molina to express his opinion when the two had a mound visit during his last start.
"I'm asking him to see what he feels about what's going on," Williams said. "He pays attention. He's got a bright future ahead of him."
Matheny likely will remain on the 15-day disabled list beyond June 19 -- the first day he can be activated. While sidelined he's invited Molina to join him in videotape sessions, schooling him on hitters' tendencies.
"He's got a great sense, so it's not like he'd be lost if I wasn't doing these things," Matheny said. "But I think it will make it a little bit easier for him and the pitchers."
Right-hander Matt Morris noted that Molina seems to have a rapid learning curve.
"I know he can throw and I know he can block, but I've never been with him enough to call a game, and these are hitters he doesn't really know," Morris said. "By the first time through he was able to realize what kind of swings they were taking on certain pitches, and he made adjustments."
The Cardinals have considered Molina, who turns 22 next month, the catcher of the future for a long time. They took him in the fourth round of the 2000 draft, and his offense has been catching up to his solid defensive skills since then.
This year, he was showing off the entire package at Triple-A Memphis. When Matheny was injured, Molina was batting .310 with a home run and 14 RBIs and a .444 batting average with runners in scoring position in 36 games in the minors.
That's all a plus. But it's not what earned him the callup.
"If he was hitting .100 he'd have been the guy because he really thinks and throws well," La Russa said.
Defensively, he threw out 17 of 28 runners attempting to steal.
With the Cardinals, it's been more of the same. He was 2-for-4 in his debut at Pittsburgh with a double and a run scored. He got his first career RBI on Saturday night, when he also threw out a runner trying to steal.
"For a young guy, he really plays with a lot of savvy," La Russa said. "I wasn't sure how he was going to be in his first major-league game, but I think nobody was really surprised. Just impressed."