- Associated Press - Monday, January 21, 2019

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina plans to begin playing spring training games in mid-March as he recovers from recent knee surgery.

The longtime star had a minor cleanup procedure on his left knee last month.

“Right now, I’m probably 50 percent with my knee,” Molina said Monday at the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up fan event. “I keep working on my rehab down there in Jupiter (Florida). We’re planning to be 100 percent ready.”

“Right now, I’m squatting about 10 percent. I have to keep working. I doubt in February I’ll catch in the bullpen. My knee was pretty bad. It had been bothering me for a long time. Last year was way hard for me. I was doing well with my bat so we decided to get surgery,” he said.

The 36-year-old Molina is a nine-time All-Star, has won nine Gold Gloves and is a two-time World Series champion. The Cardinals have reached the playoffs nine times with Molina, but have missed the postseason the last three years.

“It feels like forever,” he said.

St. Louis made a couple of big moves this offseason, getting slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in a trade with Arizona and signing free agent reliever Andrew Miller.

“We got a different team,” Molina said. “We had to do something. This year is different. It’s going to be a good year for us. We’ve got to have it this year. No excuses,” he said.

Molina recalled the moment he heard the Cardinals, coming off an 88-74 showing, had acquired Goldschmidt.

“I think I was in the boat and when I got the news I was like, ‘Oh, give me a beer,’” Molina said. “This is great news. I can’t wait to be on the same field as Goldy and the other guys.”

Veteran Matt Carpenter is equally excited about the 2019 season.

“You say this every year because you feel like you have to, but you believe it,” said Carpenter, who will move to third base with the acquisition of Goldschmidt. “It feels different this year than in years past.”

“The pulse around here feels a little different. We’ve got a lot to prove, but man, this is as excited as I’ve ever been to start a season. There’s a good reason for that,” Carpenter said.

Molina spent 1,017 2/3 innings behind the plate last season despite his troublesome knee. He hit .261 average with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs.

Molina has played his entire 15-year major league career with the Cardinals. He’s entering the second season of a three-year contract and said he plans to end his career with St. Louis.

Last season, he said he wouldn’t play beyond this contract. He’s now hedging on that.

“Right now, I’ve still got this year and one more year,” Molina said. “I made a statement down in Puerto Rico that I would love to play one more year but only for the Cardinals. If they don’t want me, I’m out,” he said.

“I feel good but not now right now with knee. It all depends on what happens in these next two years. If they want to do it one more time, I’ll only do it with the Cardinals. We’ll see what happens.”

The Cardinals finished behind Milwaukee and Chicago in the NL Central last season. During the weekend, Molina got into a verbal spat with current Cubs star Kris Bryant and former Chicago pitcher Ryan Dempster.

In a playful discussion at a Cubs fan event, Bryant called St. Louis a “boring” city and Dempster piled on. Molina quickly took exception to the comments, posting his response on social media and writing “only stupid players and losers make comments like the ones made by Bryant and Dempster.”

“Like I said to the guys, we are like a family,” Molina said Monday. “We had to stick together and had to defend ourselves and defend our ground. Whenever anybody says anything about us, we have to be there to defend us. St. Louis is home. If anybody has anything bad to say about my home, I’m going to be there for us.”

The Cardinals and Cubs play each other 19 times this season, starting May 3 at Wrigley Field.

“It will carry over to the season,” Molina said, smiling. “We’re going to keep that in mind, whatever they say. But at the same time, we’re going to play our game. This year is going to be different, I guarantee you that. Hopefully, we stay healthy.”

NOTES: When right-hander Jack Flaherty wants to reach out for pitching advice, he has an ace on call. The 23-year-old has become friends with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, a Cardinals great. Despite the 50-year gap in their ages, they stay in contact through emails, texts and phone calls. Gibson saw something he liked in watching Flaherty work on television and reached out to the rookie during the club’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony last August. “I mean, it was special,” said Flaherty, who acknowledged he didn’t know “a whole lot” about Gibson and what he had done in the game. “There’s no other way to put it. When you hear that a guy like that wants to meet you, and that’s not something he really does ever, I jumped at that opportunity. I try to reach out whenever I can if I have any questions,” Flaherty said. Flaherty went 8-9 with a 3.34 ERA, striking out 182 in 151 innings. Some of the best advice he’s received, Flaherty said, was Gibson telling him to fight through weariness that comes in a long season. “He said you’re going to get tired at some point,” Flaherty said. “He said you’re not going to get more tired and you just take wherever you’re at and give 100 percent of that.”


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