ST. LOUIS – Yadier Molina is an MVP candidate, Adam Wainwright is back in ace form, and Carlos Beltran is playing like a kid. And that’s only half the six-player All-Star contingent that led the St. Louis Cardinals to the best record in the majors at the break.
The Cardinals have done enough things right, leaning on rookies and resiliency, to compensate for some serious personnel blows. They’re 21 games above .500 entering a six-game homestand Friday that starts against the Padres.
Getting there hasn’t been a smooth ride for second-year manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak. They’ve had to fill two rotation spots on the fly, find a replacement closer, and endure dry patches from the National League’s best offense.
The Cardinals figure to be in the market for starting pitchers at the trade deadline, unless they continue to get results from the kids who have replaced Jaime Garcia (out for the season) and Chris Carpenter (yet to make his 2013 debut). Carpenter is trying to come back from a nerve injury complicated by lower back woes and remains an unknown quantity after throwing 2 2/3 innings in his first rehab start earlier this week.
After some searching, a replacement closer was found for Jason Motte, who had elbow surgery this spring. Former middle reliever Edward Mujica saved his first 21 chances and was an All-Star.
“We’ve had adversity,” Matheny said. “We’ve had plenty of things not go exactly how we wanted. It’s just important to keep playing the game.”
After dropping eight of 11 and giving up the NL Central lead, the Cardinals won eight of 11 heading into the break and have a one-game lead over the Pirates – the team with the majors’ second-best record.
Wainwright (12-5, 2.42) is tied for the league lead in wins. Lance Lynn (11-4, 4.00) reached double-digit victories for the second straight year, too. But pitchers nobody was counting on are perhaps the biggest factor.
Touted prospect Shelby Miller is among the top rookies with a 9-6 record and 2.92 ERA, and Trevor Rosenthal has closer stuff as the setup man after a strong debut last fall. But expectations were not high for John Gast and Tyler Lyons, who each won their first two major league starts, and relievers Seth Maness (5-1, 2.67) and Kevin Siegrist (0-0, 0.69).
Overall, the Cardinals have used a major league-high 11 rookie pitchers who have combined for 20 wins.
Molina’s calming presence and strong arm behind the plate have been a major plus, to say nothing of his.341 average that’s makes him the first catcher since Mike Piazza in 1996 to lead the league in hitting according to STATS.
Teammates need no prompting to promote Molina for MVP.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” fellow All-Star Allen Craig said. “The way he controls the game out there is pretty impressive and obviously there’s his hitting and clutch hitting.
“I just think he’s taken his game to a new level.”
Former manager Tony La Russa said numerous times that Molina’s defense and game management were so important that any offense was a bonus. The Cardinals signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract in spring 2012 before Molina, who’s third on the team with 49 RBIs, blossomed as a hitter.
Improved conditioning the last few offseasons have helped him stay on the field. Backup Tony Cruz has been nailed to the bench, finally reaching double-digit starts earlier this month when Molina missed a handful of games with right knee irritation.
If Cubs manager Dale Sveum were an MVP voter, he’d pick Molina, too.
“I’ve had a lot of bad walk-off losses in this park over the years,” Sveum said last month. “And Molina’s right in the middle of every one, it seems,”