JUPITER, Fla. -- Yadier Molina was sitting on the bench in Memphis when a warm-up throw in Pittsburgh changed everything for him. When Mike Matheny strained a ribcage muscle in an early June game last year, Molina found his Major League timetable dramatically accelerated. When Molina quickly showed he could handle the job, Matheny's ticket out of St. Louis was written.

Molina, who won't turn 23 until the day after this summer's All-Star game, has been installed as the starting catcher for the defending National League champion Cardinals. He replaces three-time Gold Glover Matheny, who signed a three-year free-agent contract with the Giants. Matheny's last game in a Cardinals uniform was Game 3 of the 2004 World Series, with Molina receiving the symbolic assignment of starting the season's final game.

All of which adds up to why MLB.com has pegged Molina as the breakout player on the 2005 Redbirds. His job description is about to get a lot more intense, but Molina appears ready to handle it.

He's seemingly been ticketed for the Major Leagues since he was in Class A ball, thanks to his outstanding defensive tools, maturity far beyond his age and the fact that his two older brothers are both big league catchers. Still, as recently as last May, few would have thought that Molina would be starting so soon. Even Molina himself didn't see this coming. A year ago, the assignment that now awaits him would have been inconceivable.

"I'd never believe you," he said. I'd say you were a liar."

Molina was to play all of 2004 at Triple-A Memphis, and then he'd move in as a part-timer in '05 before taking over the reins in '06. Even that might have looked like an aggressive timetable for a player born in the second year of the Reagan administration, but the Cards have loved Molina for a long time.

That schedule, however, was sketched out before Molina stepped in and showed what he could do. Molina hit an adequate, if not stirring, .267/.329/.356 (batting average/on-base/slugging) and posted a catcher's ERA of 3.64 -- a quarter of a run better than Matheny's.

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And while it's impressive for a 22-year-old to do so much as hold his own offensively in the bigs, it's the defense that the Cards care most about. The No. 1 job for a St. Louis catcher is to handle the pitching staff. Offense is considered secondary for a Redbirds backstop. And Molina receives rave reviews for his defense.

"He receives well, he's got a cannon for an arm, he's got the right attitude," said manager Tony La Russa. "I never stopped giving Mike (Matheny) compliments, and I think he really benefited from watching Mike operate.

"The pitchers, they're out there and it's a real personal thing, and you can see when a catcher is really paying attention. You can see him being creative. Two springs ago was when he showed us. It was real obvious that he was special then."

Molina first dazzled St. Louis brass in the spring of 2003, when he was coming off a solid year at low Class A Peoria. Since then, he's continued to learn the tricks of his trying trade, while also developing as a hitter. Molina has steadily improved his control of the strike zone, though he has yet to show any real power. Offense is something of the last frontier for Molina, but he's got some great teachers to watch in the Cards clubhouse.

"I learned so much watching (Albert) Pujols and (Jim) Edmonds last year," said Molina.

"Watching them, Albert is going to be in the Hall of Fame. He knows about hitting, so I just try to assimilate something that's going to help me. I'm just trying to pick up something."

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The youngest of the Molina brothers has been playing ball pretty much year-round for several years now. Though he was handling 20-year-old throwers at Peoria, he'd go home to Puerto Rico and work with big league pitchers in winter ball. It's an advantage that La Russa frequently points to, and it's given Molina confidence that he can handle the responsibility that's facing him this year. Starting Game 4 of last year's World Series didn't hurt, either.

"I played in the World Series," he said with a smile. "I feel more relaxed. I feel more mature. I feel that I know more of the pitchers' stuff."