MILWAUKEE -- With the Cardinals four games into a stretch of 20 in 20 days and Yadier Molina having started each of the team's first 12, manager Mike Matheny, with input from his veteran catcher, earmarked Monday as a prescribed off-day for Molina.
In pulling Molina, 2-for-12 in his career against Monday starter Matt Garza, Matheny also offered Tony Cruz an opportunity to get involved. Cruz's role -- to back up the catcher with the most starts since 2005 -- is largely a thankless one. The Cardinals, in essence, hope he sees minimal time on the field, as that's an indication of Molina's status.
Sure enough, Cruz has been mostly absent this season. He caught two innings in the team's first 12 games, both times entering late in games that were not close. His most recent official at-bat came March 27, in Spring Training, though Cruz did walk in a plate appearance on April 4.
"You definitely want to be able to get in there and play and contribute to the team, but I understand, he's a workhorse, and that's the way he goes about his business," Cruz said. "He's the best catcher in baseball. I just take it as it comes. It's exciting, the first start of the season."
Cruz says he often takes extra swings in the batting cage in an attempt to stay sharp, but he acknowledges that "there's nothing you can really do to simulate the timing of live pitching."
Aware that his offensive game suffers from the lack of consistent at-bats, Cruz focuses primarily on his defensive readiness and his rapport with the pitching staff. He sits through all the pitching meetings and often calls games in his head while watching Molina do so on the field.
"My priority is working with my pitcher and trying to get him through as many innings as possible," Cruz said. "Having him be successful out there overtakes the offensive side. I take pride in the offense, too, but the defensive side is weighted more."
Last season, the Cardinals went 14-14 in games Cruz started.
"[There's] a lot of extra work, maybe more so than anyone else on the field," Matheny said, speaking of the backup catcher position. "Tony does a terrific job of that. He's constantly in conversation with Yadi. It's nice that they're as close friends as they are to where there is no lapse in preparation. They do the exact same thing. Tony has a real good idea what Yadi is thinking going into a game. Now, Yadi's instincts out there make him pretty different. Tony is getting there. It's amazing how quickly he's taking on some of those attributes of Yadi's."
Rosenthal not citing velocity as problematic
MILWAUKEE -- Plenty of early-season attention has been paid to Trevor Rosenthal's fastball velocity, which has been a down a tick from his average velocity posted over his first two seasons. However, the Cardinals hardly seemed ready to jump to conclusions after a sample size of six games.
Consider, too, that Rosenthal's drop in velocity is not even the largest among the relievers in the back end of the bullpen. It's been the most scrutinized, though, because of his struggles. Through six games, Rosenthal had allowed six runs on seven hits and three walks in 7 1/3 innings. Four of those runs were scored in the team's recent weekend series against the Cubs.
Rosenthal insists his recent troubles have not been velocity-related. In fact, he said he hadn't even noticed a drop before being asked about it by reporters.
"I think it's just about being able to change speeds and hit locations more so than overall velocity," Rosenthal said. "I feel fine. I feel the same. For me, I've been in a lot of two-strike counts and thrown pitches over the plate, which has done favors for the hitters. That what seems like has hurt me a couple times."
According to fangraphs.com, Rosenthal's average fastball velocity is down to 95.7 mph from 96.4 mph last season. Similarly, Kevin Siegrist has seen a slight drop (95.0 mph in 2013; 94.8 mph in 2014) and Carlos Martinez a more substantial one (97.6 mph in 2013; 96.1 mph in 2014).
The latter hasn't been as obvious because Martinez has faced much less early adversity. In the same way, few pointed out during Rosenthal's strong 2013 campaign that his average fastball velocity was down from 97.4 mph the year before.
"I'd like to think it's not a big deal," manager Mike Matheny said on Monday. "Right now, I think they all feel good. That's going to be part of it. And as they keep moving, that velocity could be something we see continue to jump up. We're using them pretty consistently, too. We don't feel like they've been overused yet, but they've been used quite a bit. I think if they continue on their programs they've used in the past, they're still getting use to the rhythm of this season, also."
Asked if the dip could be attributed to this being just the third week of the season, Matheny added, "I can't make that prediction, but I think that's a fair thing to think about."
Ellis on track for quick return to Cardinals
MILWAUKEE -- The Cardinals received a positive report from Mark Ellis after the veteran infielder went 1-for-3 and played five innings at second base for Triple-A Memphis on Sunday. The appearance marked the start of a Minor League rehab assignment for Ellis, who has been nursing left knee patellar tendinitis since mid-March.
Ellis singled and scored from second without issue in the game. He was scheduled to play again for Memphis on Monday, but that game ended up being postponed because of rain. It was not immediately known whether that could extend Ellis' stay in Memphis. Manager Mike Matheny had said earlier in the afternoon that there was "a chance we may see him" before the Cardinals wrap up their series in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
"He felt good afterwards, which was the main thing," Matheny added. "We talked to him again today and no negative repercussions. He's on the right track to join us here soon."
When Ellis returns, he is expected to assume the roster spot currently filled by Pete Kozma. Returning to Memphis might not be such a bad thing for Kozma, who had taken only two at-bats for the Cardinals this year entering Monday's game. He would play regularly in Triple-A.
MILWAUKEE -- Highlighting news and notable performances from down in the Cardinals' farm system:
• The Texas League named outfielder James Ramsey its first player of the week in 2014 after Ramsey opened the season with a .410/.477/.846 slash line, four homers, 11 RBIs, eight extra-base hits and 10 runs scored in 10 games. He hit safely in Double-A Springfield's first eight games of the season.
• Stephen Piscotty hasn't earned any Pacific Coast League honors, but the Triple-A Memphis outfielder is off to a similarly strong start. Piscotty enters Monday riding a streak of seven straight wins, during which he has gone 12-for-29 with six runs scored and eight RBIs. Piscotty is batting .375/.432/.450 though his first 10 games in Triple-A.
• Despite a three-hit game from Joey Butler and another homer from Greg Garcia, Memphis fell to Iowa, 6-3, on Sunday. Butler raised his season average to .464 with the multihit game, while Garcia now leads the team with three home runs. Starter Boone Whiting struck out nine, including six in a row at one point, and allowed two runs on four hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings.
• With Jon Jay 6-for-9 in his career off Brewers starter Matt Garza, he earned Monday's start in center field over Peter Bourjos. It was Jay's fourth center field start this season to Bourjos' nine.
• The Cardinals announced plans to add two more theme-ticket nights to their home schedule this season.
Grant's Farm Night will fall on May 14, and those buying theme-night tickets will receive a "Hump Day" T-shirt and have the opportunity to see animals, including a camel and Budweiser Clydesdale, at Busch Stadium before the game. Wally Moon, the National League's Rookie of the Year winner in 1954, the year Grant's Farm opened, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The Cardinals will host Komen Night at the Ballpark on July 7. Five dollars from every theme ticket purchased will be donated to Komen St. Louis to support breast cancer awareness and research. Participating fans will also receive a Cardinals Komen baseball cap.
For more information on the theme nights and/or to purchase tickets, visit cardinals.com/theme.
• Monday marked Matt Carpenter's 150th career start batting in the leadoff spot. Entering the game, Carpenter held leadoff franchise records for batting average (.322), on-base percentage (.400) and slugging percentage (.477).
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.