PUR@USA: Molina catches Rollins stealing to end sixth

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina wrapped up World Baseball Classic play on Tuesday, flew across the country back to Jupiter, Fla., on Wednesday, and were given the day off by manager Mike Matheny on Thursday. On Friday, however, the two are expected back in camp, where they'll have one more week to prepare for Spring Training.

Matheny said he plans to insert both in the lineup for the first time post-Classic on Saturday.

Molina, who was named to the All-Classic Team, hit .259 while playing in seven of Puerto Rico's nine games. His most significant contributions, though, came defensively, as he helped lead a Puerto Rican pitching staff lacking in stars to a 2.88 team ERA. Molina's presence behind the plate is something the Cardinals have missed over the past three weeks.

"He's a leader on this team," Matheny said. "He leads by example. For a lot of these young pitchers, a lot that we've already sent out [to Minor League camp], [they] never had a chance to throw to him and get an interpretation of what he sees."

Beltran played in all nine Classic games but struggled offensively. He hit .188, drove in one and scored four runs.

Wainwright focuses on changeup against Mets

Outlook: Wainwright enjoyed success after return

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Adam Wainwright intends to stop experimenting, he said, when he takes the mound for his final Grapefruit League start next week. Before he does, though, he wanted to take one more opportunity to focus heavily on his changeup.

A pitch that has been on Wainwright's to-improve list all spring was, on Thursday, as effective as it's been in any of his five Grapefruit League starts thus far. It induced a handful of swings and misses -- "ugly swings," as manager Mike Matheny described them -- and garnered an out, as well.

Wainwright threw it in counts he normally wouldn't in order to get the additional repetitions, which, in March, are more critical than the results.

"I've really been working hard on it in between starts," Wainwright said of the changeup. "I threw a few good ones today. I also threw a few bad ones. But I threw more good ones."

Wainwright wasn't at his most efficient -- he threw 80 pitches in 4 2/3 innings -- and walked three. He did, though, hold the Mets to three hits and two runs, thanks, in part, to some strong defense played behind him.

Set to be the Cardinals' Opening Day starter, Wainwright will pitch one more time before facing the D-backs on April 1.

"I need to take next game," he said, "and really get my pitches where they need to be going into the regular season."

Freese returns to action, homers, says back is 'fine'

STL@NYM: Freese takes Hefner deep with a solo homer

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Playing for the first time in a week, David Freese left Tradition Field on Thursday feeling good about both his back and his swing.

Bugged by a bruised tailbone, Freese took several days off before he resumed swinging on Tuesday. He spent part of his off-day Wednesday taking additional batting practice, after which he phoned manager Mike Matheny to tell him he felt well enough to test his back in a game on Thursday.

Freese played five innings in the field against the Mets and sent the first pitch he saw in the fourth inning over the right-field wall for his second spring homer.

"It's a little stiff, but that's to be expected," Freese said, when asked about his back. "It's fine. Let's keep going and get ready."

Matheny intends to play Freese again Friday but again won't push him too deep into games for a little while longer. Thirteen players on the Cardinals' roster have more spring at-bats than Freese, who upped his total to 27 with three on Thursday. He didn't put a number on how many more he'd like to get before the season opener but expressed assurance that he'll be ready when April arrives.

"You go through a few Spring Trainings and you understand what it takes to get ready," Freese said. "Whether you come out of the gates in April smashing the ball or not, you just do what you can to prepare for 162 games."

Cards pitchers working to be better with bats

STL@NYM: Wainwright singles in Kozma for early lead

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Disappointed with their collective showing last season, members of the Cardinals' starting rotation have been logging overtime in the batting cages this spring. The extra work comes a year after the workout schedule cut back on the amount of swings pitchers took.

The top priority has been bunting, something that has actually been a camp-wide initiative for the Cardinals this spring. More than just being able to lay down a sacrifice bunt, though, the pitchers want to become tougher outs.

"Guys were wanting a few more [swings] this year," Adam Wainwright said. "We've bunted our faces off every day. Our hands were sore for a little while, we were bunting so much. We ought to be good bunters. At the very least, your team needs you, at the plate, to be a good bunter. They deserve that from us."

The early returns are promising. With Wainwright's RBI single on Thursday, the team's pitchers are a combined 3-for-8 with two RBIs in Grapefruit League play. Last year, the Cardinals ranked in the middle of the National League pitching pack in batting average (.130) and sacrifice hits (35).

"I think all of the guys are going to be better offensively this year," manager Mike Matheny said. "I really believe that. I'm not talking homers. I'm just talking little execution. They've been very deliberate and they've put their time in. They want to be much better."

Worth noting

• Former manager and Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog is the latest Cardinals guest instructor to arrive at Spring Training. He traveled with the team to Port St. Lucie on Thursday and delivered the lineup card to the home-plate umpire prior to the start of the game.

• According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wainwright's agent, Steve Hammond, was in Jupiter on Thursday to meet with general manager John Mozeliak and principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr. about a contract extension. Throughout the negotiation process, both sides have expressed optimism that a deal will get done. If Wainwright doesn't sign an extension before the end of the season, he will become a free agent in the fall.

• The Cardinals have not yet announced a starter for Monday's game against the Twins. Either Joe Kelly or Shelby Miller, both of whom are competing for the final rotation spot, is expected to get the nod.