ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals lineup got much better Thursday, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
St. Louis activated catcher Yadier Molina from the disabled list after he spent the minimum 15 days off the active roster with inflammation in his right knee. Molina, Hurdle said, is arguably the best catcher in baseball.
"Offensively, he provides a spark," Hurdle said.
"He's been good against left-handed pitching. He's been good against all pitching. The numbers speak for themselves, and, behind the plate, he probably has no peers."
The Cardinals went 6-7 in Molina's absence, though they had lost six games in a row before his injury.
An MRI revealed no structural damage in Molina's knee, so the Cardinals were hopeful he would not need more than 15 days to return. Molina said that the fact that he returned against the Pirates -- the team the Cardinals are chasing in the National League Central and the team against whom he was injured -- bears little significance.
"I'm just happy to be back no matter what team we're facing," he said.
"We take our time, and we take 15 days. Right now, my knee feels good. I don't need more time."
His addition restores a key element in the division race because Molina was an MVP candidate before the injury. He is hitting .325 with eight home runs and 54 RBIs.
St. Louis also missed his defensive contributions, although manager Mike Matheny did his best to downplay his absence.
"You know that that's out there looming, but you never want to keep harping on it," Matheny said.
"You don't want to harp a guy back because he may need more time. And two, it shows maybe a lack of respect or a lack of faith in the guys that you do have taking their place."
Molina was back in the starting lineup Thursday and went 0 for 5 with a strikeout.
Matheny said the Cardinals have a plan to ease the burden on Molina, but it is a "fluid" plan that will pay attention to how Molina reacts to activity. When pressed whether Molina would have a more set schedule for days off, Matheny responded flatly, "Yeah, there's a plan."
The Cardinals also activated outfielder Shane Robinson (strained right shoulder) Thursday, but he did not start.
Like Molina, Robinson was placed on the disabled list July 31 when the Cardinals were in Pittsburgh.
Injured players -- of which the Pirates have a few, too -- could play a big role in how the Pirates, Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds fare the final month and a half of the regular season. And Hurdle is paying attention.
He knew that Monday the Reds activated former Pirate Ryan Ludwick, who had been out since opening day.
Hurdle said he calls minor league managers that he knows to get reports on injured players.
Arizona makes itself at home
The Arizona Diamondbacks will spend more time in Pittsburgh than the Pirates will for the upcoming three-game homestand.
With a day off Thursday, the Diamondbacks arrived Wednesday in Pittsburgh. They will leave Sunday night, the same time the Pirates will head for the West Coast.
Longer outing for Watson
Pirates reliever Tony Watson tied his longest career outing Thursday, pitching three shutout innings in the loss against the Cardinals.
He had pitched three innings twice before.
Watson allowed one hit and struck out two against one of the most potent lineups in the major leagues.
"A fantastic job," Hurdle said. "He faced everybody in the lineup. He was nailing them."
After Watson already had pitched two innings, more than his season average, Hurdle asked if he felt good enough for another inning.
"I said 'Yeah, no problem,' " Watson said.
"So I ran out there and got it done."
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino.