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St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt (8) takes the game ball from St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Mike Mayers (59) after Mayers gave up a two-run RBI single to Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jacob Stallings (58) in the sixth inning during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, Sept., 12, 2018, in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

The alarm sounded shortly after 3 p.m.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was in the midst of Thursday’s meeting with the media, trying to put into words what the return of his club’s cornerstone catcher meant at this crucial time. An ear-splitting siren interrupted. A light flashed ominously from the ceiling.

False alarm, it turned out. Blame it on a fluky smoke detector. The chaos coincided with a buzz that was circulating around Busch Stadium: Yadier Molina was back.

The Cardinals’ heartbeat had returned for a four-game series that could very well determine the fate of this season.

“Let’s do it,” Molina said as he walked off the field following batting practice, his convincing complete.

He had to win a different game before he could start Thursday’s. He had to show team doctors and trainers that he was capable of returning from a hamstring injury that removed him from action just one week ago.

Molina and Shildt shared what the manager described as an “open and honest” conversation about what felt good (catching and hitting) and what did not (running).

Yes, the Cardinals are starting a star who is not 100 percent, and they are being rather candid about it.

Shildt moved Molina down to seventh in the lineup. He mapped out pinch-running plans because the catcher either cannot or should not run at his top speed.

This was the definition of the game-time call, at least for everyone not named Molina.

The Cardinals posted their lineup later than usual, waiting until Molina had passed his final tests.

But Molina had sent Shildt a text message the night before to say he was ready.

Thursday was supposed to be the day he was officially cleared for baseball activities. So much for easing into it.

The Cardinals must realize letting Molina rush back could come back to bite them.

It can’t be said later that Molina was completely ready, because by starting a player who can’t run the bases at full speed, you are making it known said player is not completely ready.

“We were on the same page on what we felt like the parameters were and are,” Shildt explained.

Naturally, we worry. Especially when it comes to Molina.

We fret about his staggering workload. He should rest more, right? He returns too soon from the bumps and bruises, and the shredded ligaments, and the injured knees, and that terrifying traumatic hematoma, and this time around, a left hamstring strain.

We wonder if the Energizer Bunny in Jumpman gear will continue to defy Father Time through the end of a contract that expires after the 2020 season — or 2021 if another year is tacked on.

We argue about the heirs to his throne. Is prized prospect Carson Kelly rotting on the vine?

Baseball keeps teaching us 30 is the new 75. Molina turned 36 in July. It’s natural to fear the end, because endings so often turn ugly.

This next sentence deserves an alarm and flashing lights: We should stop.

Certain athletes and certain moments deserve certain perspectives.

A limited Molina rushing back for a postseason push is one such moment.

His return alone will not be enough, as evidenced by Thursday’s outcome. Molina’s pitch-calling powers failed to keep a dangerous Dodgers lineup loaded with right-handed mashers from jumping all over rookie starter Austin Gomber. Molina walked once and lined out before the game became so lopsided so early that Shildt removed the catcher after four innings. The Dodgers won Round 1.

But it’s safe to assume the Cardinals’ chances of punching back — like their chances of becoming the first NL team since the introduction of the second wild card to turn a 50-50 season at the 100-game mark into a postseason appearance — are severely diminished if Molina sits until his hamstring feels perfect.

Entering Thursday’s loss, the Cardinals were 62-46 when Molina played and .500 when he didn’t. He ranks third on the team in hits and doubles, fourth in home runs and RBIs, and fifth among Cardinals regulars in batting average and slugging percentage.

And then there is the impact that can’t be measured.

Listening to rookie Harrison Bader explain before the game what it would be like to face Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, it hit home just how new this is for so many of the still-fresh faces who have become key cogs.

Bader managed to eliminate the awe in his voice. Impressive, considering his viewpoint.

“I grew up watching him go to work,” Bader said. “To be in the box (against Kershaw) is a cool thing. But that goes out the window quickly.”

Los Angeles, loaded to the brim with big contracts and the towering expectations that come with them, came here to step on Shildt’s young, scrappy team.

The Dodgers have their stars and a 1-0 lead in this crucial series.

The Cardinals have their catcher and the confidence that comes with him.

“I don’t know that there is anybody more valuable in this league, relative to the total composition of what he brings to the table,” Shildt said.

“There is not a metric you can put on Yadier Molina.”

He’s going to need some help.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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