ST. LOUIS – For the first time in nearly two decades, the St. Louis Cardinals opened a season with a catcher not named Yadier Molina.
That torch was officially handed to longtime Chicago Cubs backstop Willson Contreras on Thursday.
“Nothing but respect for Yadi. My idol,” said Contreras on the eve of Opening Day.
Contreras made his Cardinals debut in the 2023 home opener, navigating five new teammates through a high-octane Toronto Blue Jays lineup before a sudden injury forced an early exit.
Contreras suffered a right knee contusion in the eighth inning of the Cardinals’ 10-9 loss to the Blue Jays. A 103-mph pitch from reliever Jordan Hicks glanced off the right knee of Contreras in a spot without much protection. He departed moments later with help from manager Oli Marmol and the Cardinals training staff.
After the game, Marmol noted that initial x-rays on Contreras’ knee came back negative, though he is set for an MRI during the Cardinals’ off-day Friday.
The unexpected exit overshadowed an otherwise productive and sentimental Cardinals debut for Contreras. The 30-year-old went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and did his best Yadier Molina impression by throwing out the only runner who tried to swipe a base on him, Toronto’s Matt Chapman in the seventh inning.
Contreras said it was important to honor Molina with the changing of guard at Cardinals catcher.
“This is a really special place for me to be in,” said Contreras on taking the throne from Molina. “It’s a huge responsibility because we all know what [Yadi] did for the Cardinals and baseball.”
Contreras wore a special pair of cleats to honor Molina’s legacy on Thursday. The red, yellow and white footwear read “RESPECT 4,” an ode to Molina’s jersey number. Each shoe also displayed the Gateway Arch.
“Now that I’m here, I got goosebumps. I’m excited for my journey, and I’m excited to help this team I can in any way win ballgames, [and] I made this for him,” said Contreras on the cleats. “I know he probably doesn’t expect that, but I feel like I had to do some kind of honor for him. After 18 in a row, he deserves this and more.”
Contreras had the chance to witness an Opening Day in St. Louis in 2017, months after he won a World Series title with the Cubs. On the other side of the rivalry, he has a new appreciation for the whole experience.
“Now that I’m here, it’s going to be better,” said Contreras on the Opening Day expectations. “I went out there [Wednesday] for practice and I felt the energy kicking off. I tried to not get too anxious, but I’m excited for this new journey.
Contreras, a Venezuela native, opted to stay with the Cardinals in spring camp rather than participate in the World Baseball Classic. He wanted to develop a strong rapport with the pitchers, and many St. Louis veterans took notice.
“It was kind of tough with the WBC in spring, but my locker was right next to his,” said Miles Mikolas, the battery mate for Contreras on Opening Day. “What we didn’t get to share out there in the field necessarily, we got to hang out in the locker room, trade jokes, talk about pitches. Just kind of go back and forth, and shoot the bull. He’s fitting right in here on this team.”
“He’s a great player. We’ve competed against him for a long time,” said reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt. “He brings a lot of energy, plays hard. He’s a great catcher, hitter, [and] he can do it all. He said he’s excited to be here, [and] we’re excited to have him.”
The Cardinals reported Friday that Contreras is considered day-to-day after undergoing tests on Friday. The Cardinals and Blue Jays return to Busch Stadium on Saturday afternoon for the second game of the home opener series.