In their first game without Yadier Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals survived a 14-inning battle of attrition, beating the Chicago Cubs 4-3 when Dexter Fowler skied a game-winning two-run homer off the top of the right-field wall just before 1 a.m. Monday.
St. Louis continues a journey of at least four weeks in duration without its All-Star catcher Monday night when it starts a two-game interleague series in Busch Stadium with the Minnesota Twins.
How it survives this stretch without Molina, a workhorse who started 30 of the Cardinals' first 31 games before being felled by a foul tip to the groin in the ninth inning Saturday, could tell if they can challenge for a National League Central Division title.
At 20-12, St. Louis leads the division by 1 1/2 games over Milwaukee. Molina helped get it off to the fast start, hitting .272 with six homers and 17 RBIs while helping the pitching staff rank among the top five in the majors in earned run average.
"With him behind the plate, it takes so much pressure off the pitcher just because you know how prepared he is," Minnesota reliever Zach Duke said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "You don't have to think about what you're going to throw because pretty much whatever he puts down is the right pitch at the time."
Duke would know. He spent parts of the last two years with the Cardinals before signing with the Twins as a free agent. Another former teammate, Lance Lynn, followed Duke to Minnesota in mid-March, although he won't face St. Louis in the series.
Instead, the Cardinals will face rookie right-hander Fernando Romero, making his second big league start. The 23-year-old Romero fired 5 2/3 scoreless innings Wednesday in a 4-0 victory over Toronto, permitting four hits and walking three while fanning five.
Romero, rated a top 100 prospect in the minors before the season, averaged almost a strikeout per inning in 324 1/3 minor league innings. He won 11 games last year at Double-A Chattanooga.
The Twins (13-17) prevailed 5-3 Sunday at the Chicago White Sox, their third straight win, and trail first place Cleveland by two games in the American League Central.
They could be catching St. Louis at a good time, and not just because Molina won't be around. While the Cardinals have won five in a row, their bullpen was shredded by 10- and 14-inning games to end the Cubs' series.
John Gant (1-0, 0.00) will make his first big league start of the year for St. Louis. In his only appearance for the Cardinals, he fired three hitless innings April 26 to earn a 4-3, 13-inning win over the New York Mets.
That's one of five walk-off wins for St. Louis, which has won 10 of 11 at home and plays 11 of its next 15 games against teams with losing records. But it also plays those games without its leader.
"He's been our unofficial captain for well over a decade," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said about Molina to mlb.com. "There will be lots of parts of him that will be missed, but now we have a situation where somebody has to step up."
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