ST. LOUIS -- As the disappointment passed and the diagnosis soaked in, the St. Louis Cardinals could merely consult the calendar.
One night earlier and just three weeks after losing two-fifths of their starting rotation to injury, the Cardinals watched Yadier Molina's aggressive move to third lead to a torn right thumb ligament that would require surgery to repair. It came just as the Cards were making a climb, too. They finished that day, July 9, two games from the top of the division, the closest they had been to the Brewers since May 27.
But besides the National League Central race, St. Louis had to deal with the race against time. Molina's surgery would require an recovery period of eight to 12 weeks, the Cardinals were told. The shortest end of that timeline meant a return on the first Friday of the season's final month. The long end meant no September return at all.
And yet, when the Cards open a four-game series against the Cubs on Friday, they expect to do so with Molina behind the plate. It will have been exactly seven weeks since his surgery.
With an eye on rejoining St. Louis for the home stretch, Molina expedited his recovery with an aggressive rehab program. He was throwing and hitting earlier than expected, and he started a rehab assignment with Double-A Springfield on Wednesday that will last just two days, if all goes well.
In his first game action since July 9, Molina went 2-for-3 with an RBI double while catching six innings for Springfield.
"It doesn't surprise me at all to know that he worked his tail off to get back as soon as possible," starter Shelby Miller said. "Getting Yadi back is going to be a huge help for us down the stretch. We're trying to make a run, and I think it's going to be huge to have him around to help with that."
Molina will have missed 40 games, but he can now be an active asset over the final 30. The Cardinals weathered his absence fairly well, too. The club is a half-game closer to Milwaukee than it was when Molina went down; it is 10 games above .500, two more than it was at the time of the injury. The hole at catcher has been plugged by Tony Cruz, A.J. Pierzynski and, briefly, George Kottaras.
While the Cards are quick to credit these catchers for their contributions, there should be no understating the difference-maker Molina can be for a St. Louis club that continues to underachieve.
"I think he can have a huge impact, and I think anybody in baseball would want to have him on their club in any capacity," manager Mike Matheny said. "We want to have him right, too, so we have to see how he looks when he gets back. The leadership he brings, everything, the package, is important."
Molina is widely considered to be the game's best catcher, an assertion backed by the way he guides a pitching staff, halts the running game and frames pitches. There is full buy-in to his game-calling, as well. Adam Wainwright went as far as to call his longtime batterymate "one of the greatest catchers ever."
"Yadier Molina," Wainwright said, "obviously makes a big difference on our entire team."
The Cardinals allowed more stolen bases (25) in Molina's 40-game absence than he had allowed (22) in 83 games. Molina has thrown out 49 percent of attempting basestealers. Over the past seven weeks, the Cards' catchers have a success rate of 11 percent.
While there are other contributing factors (the wear of a long season, changing personnel, injuries, etc.), it cannot be entirely coincidental that St. Louis' staff has regressed without Molina. After posting a 3.29 ERA through July 9, the staff has an ERA of 4.47 since.
The numbers are even more exaggerated for the rotation, which averaged 6.1 innings per start and had a 3.20 ERA before Molina's injury. The Cardinals have averaged 5.8 innings per start with a 4.61 ERA after it.
Then there is the impact Molina can have on the offensive end. Molina, who has finished in the top four in the voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award each of the past two seasons, had carved a spot as the team's No. 5 hitter this season. And while he had not sustained his 2012-13 level of production, Molina still offered an above-average bat for the position, hitting .287/.341/.409 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 30 RBIs.
The Cards have a .207 average from their catchers in Molina's absence.
Matheny would not commit to a usage schedule for Molina, saying only that the Cardinals will see how he responds to the rigors of playing every day and build in rest accordingly. However, the work Molina did in the weight room when he could not participate in other baseball activities seems to have him prepared to carry a heavy September load.
"He's dropped some weight. He's in incredible shape," Matheny said. "Now, catching shape and baseball shape are different things. We're just going to have to weigh it each day, see how he's moving, see how he's feeling, see how the doctors evaluate what he's got going on."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.