Cards in mix despite grinding season

Waiting for Yadier

Some of the enthusiasm surrounding the team revolves around the pending returns of catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Michael Wacha, both of whom will take another step in their injury rehabs this week when they join St. Louis' Double-A farm club in Springfield, Mo. Wacha, who has been out since June with a stress reaction in his right shoulder, will throw a live bullpen session Wednesday as the next step toward a September return. It remains to be seen whether Wacha can build the necessary stamina to have an impact in the rotation if St. Louis advances to the playoffs. But if Wacha can find a way to get it together in a hurry, a postseason rotation of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Wacha could be a handful.

Molina, out since July 10 with a torn ligament in his right thumb, has begun swinging the bat and catching bullpen sessions and also expects to return next month. The Cardinals were 50-42, two games behind Milwaukee in the Central, when Molina went down for surgery just before the All-Star break. They've gone 21-17 in his absence and now trail the Brewers by 1½ games, so his injury wasn't quite the death blow it was made out to be.

But the peripheral numbers substantiate how much better a team the Cardinals are with Molina orchestrating things from behind the plate. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals have a 3.26 ERA in 703 innings with Molina at catcher this season and a 4.19 mark in 457 innings with Tony Cruz, A.J. Pierzynski and George Kottaras behind the plate.

Molina's calming influence, pitch-calling, game-planning and pitch-framing skills are well-documented. And his impact on opposing running games is always apparent. Molina threw out 16 of 34 runners attempting to steal before his injury. St. Louis' other catchers are a combined 5-for-33.

If Matheny goes to great lengths to stifle his inner giddiness over the potential return of two impact players in September, it's because he doesn't want to give his team a crutch or set up the Cardinals for a letdown in the event Molina and/or Wacha experience setbacks.

"I don't want to diminish it, but our perspective is different from everybody else in the baseball world," Matheny said. "Everybody labeled Yadi early on as a player we couldn't do without, and that's a dangerous place to go. Injuries happen in this game, and if you set yourself up to think, 'If we lose this particular player, we've lost all hope and chances,' that's a bad spot to be."

Finding their way

With or without Molina, the Cardinals still have to figure out a way to put more runs on the board. Although they're having a respectable offensive August (they're fourth in the NL with 100 runs scored this month), they're still tied for 13th in the league with 493 runs. Much of the dropoff can be traced to a marked decline in production with runners in scoring position; after leading the majors with a .330 average in that category in 2013, they're 24th among the 30 big-league clubs at .243 this season. They're also 29th in the majors with 84 home runs, ahead of only the power-impaired Kansas City Royals, and have a 71-59 record despite a run differential of minus-7.

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