JUPITER, Fla. -- Yadier Molina provides an unrelenting quality to the middle of the Cardinals' lineup."You think you're going to take a breath [after facing Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman] and, next thing you know, he's going to have that big at-bat for you," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's got that knack for putting up real tough at-bats in big situations." It wasn't always this way. Molina batted just .238 with a .291 on-base percentage in his first 1,033 Major League plate appearances. Then he hit .275 in 2007, and he's hit .293 or higher in the three of the four years since. Albert Pujols used to tell people that Molina had the potential to hit .300, even when Molina was struggling to find his way at the plate early in his career.
Matheny said he had the same feelings at the time."I had watched him and his approach and followed him through his progression in the Minor Leagues and said, 'This guy's going to hit,'" Matheny said. "He had to find his own stride. He was really fighting to please everybody at first. But he was a low-strikeout guy, and it was just a matter of him getting comfortable. It can take a few years in this league. And once you get set defensively, that gives you the freedom to be yourself offensively." Molina led the Cards with a .305 average last season.
Greene trying to keep grip on second-base job
JUPITER, Fla. -- If the Cardinals wanted Tyler Greene to run away with the starting second base job, then the results this spring can only be classified as a disappointment.Greene made his fourth error in 14 Grapefruit League games Saturday in Port St. Lucie, missing the relay feed on what would have been an inning-ending double play ball in the first inning. The error put runners on the corners, and Ike Davis capitalized by crushing a three-run homer off Lance Lynn. But to his credit, Greene made a pretty athletic play in the ninth, chasing down a popup in foul territory. "We've seen some very good things," manager Mike Matheny said, "and we've seen things like [that error]." The Cards are expected to utilize Greene as their regular second baseman, but he's been pushed in camp by Daniel Descalso, who has had a strong spring at the plate and batted in the leadoff spot Sunday against the Twins.
As Westbrook gets slimmer, so does his ERA
JUPITER, Fla. -- Jake Westbrook, who makes his fourth start of the spring Monday against the Mets, has had as strong a camp as anybody in the Cardinals locker room, as evidenced by his 0.00 ERA and .146 average against through 12 innings of work.For Westbrook, it all starts with his physical conditioning. Westbrook makes his living with a heavy sinkerball, but he was feeling pretty heavy himself this winter. And so he shed about 15-20 pounds by cutting carbohydrates out of his diet, and that's helped his confidence on the mound. "He's a different pitcher, from start to finish," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's pretty exciting to see him have the results, for all the work that he put in this winter." Westbrook had one of the more frustrating seasons of his 11-year career in 2011, going 12-9 with a 4.66 ERA in 33 starts, walking a career-high 73 batters in 183 1/3 innings.
If he can have a season more in line with what he did after the Cards acquired him at the 2010 Trade Deadline (3.48 ERA), he gives the Cards some upside in the back end of the rotation, which needs all the help it can get in light of Chris Carpenter's injury situation."I've never had a great first half or a great start," Westbrook said. "So I want to get off to a good start and ride it out through the year. I wanted to give myself every opportunity by working hard, losing some weight. I'm 34 now, so I'm not getting any younger. I don't want to have any regrets toward the end of my career. I want to know I did everything I possibly could to play as long as I possibly can." But he does miss the carbs sometimes. "Making a sandwich," he said wistfully. "Making a quick peanut butter and jelly and crushing it. I miss that."
Cardinals release Cora, Hill
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals moved a lot closer to finalizing their Opening Day roster, making five moves on Sunday to bring the total number of players still in camp to 32.The Cards gave veterans Alex Cora and Koyie Hill their unconditional releases, while right-hander Eduardo Sanchez and infielder Mark Hamilton were optioned to Triple-A Memphis and non-roster first baseman Matt Adams was reassigned to Minor League camp. Manager Mike Matheny said it was particularly difficult to give the news to Cora and Hill, two veterans who hoped to latch on with the Cards. "I had a sick feeling all day," he said. "Those guys have gone about it like true pros." Ultimately, the Cards didn't have a fit for either. While the 36-year-old Cora was competing for a backup infield role, the Cards know they can count on Daniel Descalso's ability to play shortstop, therefore negating the need for Cora on the roster. As far as the others removed from big league camp, Matheny sounded especially optimistic about Sanchez's potential. Sanchez worked eight innings over seven appearances, allowing no runs and striking out 14. Matheny said Sanchez can sacrifice some of his velocity for better command and still be effective because of the deception in his delivery. "He just hides the ball so well," Matheny said. "He comes out of nowhere." Hamilton, who hit .167 in nine games, missed an extended amount of time in Grapefruit League play because of a quadriceps injury.
Here's one issue for the Cardinals, with Chris Carpenter out early: After the season opener April 4 in Miami, they have 27 straight games against NL Central opponents, through May 6. That's quite an early test to see where they stack up in the National League Central.
"I know they make a pretty conscious effort [to schedule early division games]," Mike Matheny said. "But that's a lot."
Only in Spring Training can you find a game in which one team uses the DH and the other does not. That's what happened Sunday at Roger Dean Stadium, with Kyle Lohse taking his at-bats for the Cards and Brian Dinkelman filling the DH role for the Twins.
Matt Holliday took an 11-game hitting streak into Sunday's game against the Twins. He's had a sensational spring at the plate, but, obviously, doesn't read much into it. "You just try to get your work in, go out there, be aggressive, have good at-bats," he said. "The results don't mean anything. You just try to keep that good feeling at the plate where you're confident and your swing feels good."
Matheny told a funny story about one of his eight career stolen bases. "I know I took one off Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez] in his heyday," Matheny said. "I just had a real good jump, they weren't paying any attention, he makes a high throw, just safe. So he comes up to bat the next inning, steps in the box and says, 'You know, my arm don't feel so good today.'" Excuses, excuses.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.