As Molina rests, St. Louis Cardinals turn to Knizner, Herrera to pick up the slack

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Before Cardinals catcher Iván Herrera made the fourth start of his Major League career, he had something he needed to check off his to-do list. He needed a meeting with Adam Wainwright, Monday’s starting pitcher, heading into career start 373.

Herrera wanted to run down the right-hander’s repertoire and develop a thorough understanding of his pitches before the duo met with pitching coach Mike Maddux for game planning.

It had been a good, long while since Wainwright had to catch up with someone new.

“Pretty rare,” Wainwright said with a smile at his locker on Monday night. “I’ve been playing catch with the same guy for 17 years, so he knows me pretty good.”

With that guy, Yadier Molina, resting and recuperating at home in Puerto Rico, opportunity has arisen for Herrera, the youngest player to catch in MLB in 2022. Born June 1, 2000, catching Wainwright also meant the latter has now started games with battery mates born in four separate decades. And Wainwright’s assessment?

“Moved around well, good target, received well, framed well. I thought he was great.”

He also played an important role in helping to settle down one of the most amped up athletes who has perhaps ever set foot on the field at Busch Stadium. Righty James Naile made his Major League debut out of the bullpen Monday night after seven years in the minors and a lifetime of being a Cardinal fan.

Naile said he had a poster of Wainwright on his wall as a child. When he got to the pitcher’s mound for the top of the eighth, though, it was Herrera, his teammate at Triple-A Memphis this year, waiting for him.

“He basically reminded me that, hey, it’s the same game,” Naile said. “You know, trust me. And I said, ‘hey, let’s do it.’”

Seven pitches — all strikes — and three outs later, Naile was back in the dugout. Before he made it there, first base umpire Laz Díaz conducted the standard check for foreign substances and congratulated Naile on his debut.

“That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Naile told the umpire.

“I stand by that,” he said later, grinning in front of his locker. “There’s so much that goes into getting called up and the logistics of it all, and getting to St. Louis, and being in a new clubhouse, and joining the guys, but the fun part’s being out on that field with everybody and competing.”

St. Louis Cardinals back-up catcher Ivan Herrera singles during the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, June 26, in St. Louis. As Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina recuperates, Herrera could see an increased share of playing time with more consistent results.
St. Louis Cardinals back-up catcher Ivan Herrera singles during the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, June 26, in St. Louis. As Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina recuperates, Herrera could see an increased share of playing time with more consistent results.

Consistent results

That field was one Naile had never before been on; indeed, he shared with reporters that the closest he’d come to any Major League field before Monday night was a tour of Marlins Park during college, on which he did not leave the warning track. Monday’s stretch was his debut on the grass.

He made it there for his pregame work only after asking a reporter for directions from the clubhouse to the field.

Once he got between the lines in competition, however, it was Herrera who did the directing. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol acknowledged over the weekend consistent results from Herrera would result in his receiving and increased share of playing time with Andrew Knizner, and accordingly, Tuesday was his third consecutive day penciled into the starting lineup.

“I think we’ve preached competition quite a bit throughout the season,” Marmol said Tuesday. “This falls into that category of, they’re both gonna get a shot to play. And we’ll see who comes out of it.”

More rotation questions

Marmol also explained his inclination would be not to upset existing relationships between a pitcher and a catcher which have been yielding consistent results. Knizner and Miles Mikolas have worked together regularly this season, and Mikolas has shown a full return to form. Steven Matz, who started his rehab assignment from shoulder stiffness at Memphis on Tuesday night, has also had success with Knizner.

That leaves at least three other rotation spots up for grabs until Molina returns, with opportunities for either backstop to assert himself as deserving of encroaching on the other’s assignments.

“I think when you’re young and you come into the league, there’s a learning process,” Marmol said of Herrera’s receiving skills. “You just have way more tools available here, from data points and video and heat maps and projected matchups. There’s a lot that goes into calling the game.”

‘You need a translator?’

For the length of Molina’s career, the Cardinals have been defined by exceptional home plate defense that has held opposing offenses down by both the force of a throwing arm and the threat that it might be deployed. As Herrera and Knizner sort out their fortunes at the plate, they’ll be measured in large part by what happens behind it, and how they handle themselves among their teammates.

Herrera, for his part, seems eager to help. Just before Naile met with a large media gathering, the native of Panama stopped on his way to the showers with his last offer of assistance for the night.

“You need a translator?” he asked, breaking into a wide smile.

Naile had it under control. Herrera had enough work to do for the next night’s game.

Jeff Jones
Jeff Jones