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Cardinals' latest obstacle? Losing Yadier Molina

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina hunches over

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina hunches over after hitting into a double play during the sixth inning in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in St. Louis. Photo Credit: AP / Charlie Neibergall

ST. LOUIS - Still jacked up on the adrenaline rush of Kolten Wong's walk-off homer, the Cardinals weren't thinking too much "big picture" after Sunday night's 5-4 victory in Game 2, which a few described as "must-win" with the NLCS now heading to the Bay Area.

But the player noticeably absent from the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium is the one thing these Cardinals have to worry about.

While it's true they didn't need Yadier Molina after the seventh inning to ultimately outlast the Giants and tie the series, this was only one game. The Cardinals still need to win three more to advance, then four more after that for a World Series ring.

And it looks as if they'll have to try to do it without Molina, who left Game 2 with a strained left oblique, the most troublesome of baseball injuries short of a broken bone or surgery.

In the sixth inning, Molina grounded into a double play but never moved from the batter's box. As soon as the ball left his bat, Molina doubled over in obvious pain, putting his hands on his knees. He had to be helped off the field and to the clubhouse. The six-time All-Star, a top-five finisher for MVP the past two seasons, was not seen again.

Given the nature of the injury, it's doubtful Molina will play again this October, and that's a huge blow for the Cardinals' title hopes regardless of their resilience in Game 2.

"I'm going to try and not be the oddsmaker here," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We have one of the toughest human beings I have ever seen that we're talking about right now. I do know that if there's any chance, if there is anybody that could play with any injury, it would be Yadi."

The Cardinals gave the requisite nod to Molina when asked about the impact of losing him for the rest of the playoffs. But there's only so much self-pity a team will indulge in.

"You can't say enough about what he's done for our team," said Matt Carpenter, who hit his fourth homer in six postseason games. "Obviously, it's not ideal. But we've got a lot of guys stepping up right now."

Others tried to express their confidence in Tony Cruz, the 27-year-old backup with 158 games of big-league experience behind the plate. Cruz replaced Molina on Sunday night, and after a bumpy ninth inning, he was fortunate the Cardinals rallied to erase any of those blemishes.

"He's followed Yadi around so much, he's pretty much the same person," closer Trevor Rosenthal said. "We have the same confidence in him coming in and filling that role."

Nice try, Trevor. Only a player of Molina's magnitude can quiet an entire stadium by the simple act of gingerly walking off the field. And if those 46,262 fans were stunned into silence in the sixth inning, they were mortified to see Cruz nearly cost the Cardinals the game in the ninth.

One strike away from the save, Rosenthal threw a 99-mph pitch to Joe Panik that bounced a foot in front of the plate. Cruz did his best to block it, but the ball deflected off his left forearm toward the Giants' dugout. Cruz couldn't find it at first, heading toward the Cardinals' on-deck circle before reversing direction. By the time he got to the ball, Matt Duffy had scored easily from second base with the tying run.

Could Molina have prevented that? Possibly. Cruz also had a passed ball in the seventh that set up Gregor Blanco's go-ahead RBI single. But the Cardinals were able to overcome all that.

"To see Yadi go down, he's our leader," Cruz said. "But we've been fighting all year."

Molina missed seven weeks this season because of surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. During that period, the Cardinals were 21-21. He returned almost two months earlier than expected and they went 19-9 the rest of the way.

Molina is a difference-maker, in just about every way you can be for a baseball team. Now we'll see just how much his absence will change the Cardinals.

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