ST. LOUIS -- Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen was the early favorite. San Francisco's Buster Posey and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun seem to be at the head of the discussion now. But as the regular season winds down, those in the Cardinals clubhouse are lobbying for someone else to enter the mix for the National League Most Valuable Player Award.

Yadier Molina, already regularly described as the game's best defensive catcher, has had an offensive year that rivals that of any other catcher in baseball. Combine the two, and Molina has a convincing candidacy.

"When you start watching every day like we all do, you understand the value he brings," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "And when you talk about the most valued, I can't imagine anyone being any more [valuable]."

"He's an MVP in my book, whether he's behind the plate or in the box," added third baseman David Freese. "I think when you watch Yadi hit, you can just sense that you know what he's doing. I think that defines a complete big league hitter, when you can just look at him and see he has an approach and see that he knows what to do. And then after that, he executes. We're fortunate to have him driving guys in. We're fortunate to have him throwing guys out."

Molina hit his 20th home run of the year on Wednesday, a benchmark he had never previously reached. With a .324 batting average, Molina entered Thursday ranked fourth in the NL. He has already set career highs in RBIs (68) and hits (151).

"I don't take anything for granted," Molina said. "If I go 4-for-4 one day, I want to do it again the next day. I go day by day and try to do the best I can each day."

What Molina is doing on the defensive end is nothing new. He's a four-time NL Gold Glove Award winner who is on his way toward nabbing a fifth. He's thrown out 47 percent of runners trying to steal on him and is routinely lauded for the work he does with a pitching staff.

This defensive side, though, often goes undervalued in the MVP voting, which is why Molina remains a long shot to win the award. He has never previously finished higher than 21st in the voting.

Carpenter no stranger to high-pressure spots

ST. LOUIS -- After several comeback attempts this year, Chris Carpenter now sits fewer than 24 hours away from returning to the mound for the first time since leading the Cardinals to a Game 7 win in last year's World Series.

Carpenter underwent what was believed to be season-ending surgery in July to address thoracic outlet syndrome, which led the right-hander to experience numbness and weakness in his right shoulder, arm and neck during Spring Training. But he'll start on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field as the Cardinals open a six-game road trip, their last of the regular season. The right-hander leaps right into a pennant race, too, as St. Louis entered Thursday with only a two-game cushion for the second National League Wild Card spot.

"I've pitched in plenty of games that have mattered, so I'm going out there with the same focus, the same program, and that's to mentally and physically prepare to get outs and give us a chance to win," Carpenter said. "Hopefully, I can help us get going on a little push and that we can put a little run together here."

The Cardinals have not publicly stated a pitch limit for Carpenter, though his workload will be closely monitored. He threw 95 pitches during a simulated game on Saturday.

Carpenter could make as many as three regular-season starts, and he would be available in the postseason should the Cardinals make it. No pitcher in franchise history has more playoff wins than Carpenter, who has a 9-2 postseason record.

"I'm excited to watch him pitch," manager Mike Matheny said. "The expectations are he goes out and does what Chris Carpenter does. I'm not expecting him to be Chris Carpenter of any specific year except right now."

Cards won't push Beltran through knee tightness

ST. LOUIS -- Convinced that regular rest will help Carlos Beltran move closer to his first-half self, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny kept the right fielder out of the starting lineup against the Astros on Thursday.

The veteran outfielder did, however, find a way to contribute off the bench for the Cards' series finale, lifting a tiebreaking two-run double as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning.

Beltran exited Wednesday's 5-0 win in the ninth inning due to some minor tightness in one of his knees. That tightness had subsided by Thursday, but Matheny opted not to push his 35-year-old outfielder, who has long had knee problems. Beltran has now started just two-thirds of the games this month.

"I think what we've done here recently is pay real close attention when those little things are bothering him," Matheny said. "We're trying to be smart about it. We pushed him and really had him grind for a bulk of this season, and I think it really put him in a bad spot.

"We've all been very clear -- we need him to get going, and he's starting to get going. We don't want to push, push, push."

Perhaps Beltran's recently improved production is a payoff of that rest. He has 11 hits in his last eight starts.

While the Cardinals have made an effort not to overwork Beltran, the opposite approach has been taken with Yadier Molina of late. For just the second time all year, Molina has started 10 straight games. That workload comes after the catcher dealt with several minor injuries in August.

But that strain has not done anything to reduce the catcher's production. This month, Molina is hitting .327 with a .435 on-base percentage. The latter is notably higher than his season mark of .382.

"He understands where we are right now, and he feels good," Matheny said of Molina. "He's ready to go, and he knows that we need him."

Worth noting

• The Cardinals' rotation plans beyond Sunday still have not been announced and likely won't be until after Jake Westbrook (right oblique strain) throws his bullpen session on Friday. It might be the final step before Westbrook is cleared to return. If the rotation stays in order, Lance Lynn would be in line to start Monday's series opener in Houston. Lynn has allowed just one run in 12 1/3 innings since returning to the starting rotation.

• The Cubs have lined up their rotation for this weekend's three-game series against the Cardinals. Chris Volstad (3-10, 6.26 ERA) will start on Friday and be followed by Travis Wood (6-12, 4.25) on Saturday and Justin Germano (2-8, 6.17) on Sunday.

• The Cardinals surpassed a home season attendance mark of 3 million on Thursday. It is the ninth straight year in which the club has drawn at least 3 million fans.