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Former rivals Mike Leake, Yadier Molina profess mutual admiration

JUPITER, Fla. -- Mike Leake found out Yadier Molina would catch his first spring training outing a couple of days ago.

"I mean, it's kind of a surreal moment, just because I'm throwing to a future Hall of Famer," Leake said. "Not many people can say that."

Leake, who signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in December, has been a borderline elite starting pitcher without having borderline elite stuff. He had a 3.70 ERA and 3.88 fielding independent pitching while pitching with a fastball that averaged 90.7 mph last season, per FanGraphs, in an extreme hitters' park in Cincinnati.

Leake, 28, has excelled largely by doing all the little things well, including fielding his position and even adding value with his bat at times. Presumably he could benefit from Molina's experience and talent, which is why Molina's return to catching Wednesday -- he did not hit -- was well timed for the team. The Gold Glove catcher and the team's new finesse pitcher began the process of getting acquainted.

"I think he and Yadi are going to have fun together," manager Mike Matheny said. "I think Yadi's the kind of catcher who can help Mike be very creative. He has the kind of stuff to be very creative, so I think they're going to enjoy the chess-match cat-and-mouse game. Those kinds of guys are fun to catch."

Leake gave up two hits and struck out two Miami Marlins over two innings. Randal Grichuk threw out Justin Bour at the plate in the second inning, forcing Molina to make a swipe tag, which is exactly how he tore the ligament in his left thumb in the first place. Leake, who was on the San Francisco Giants at the time, wasn't aware that that was how Molina had gotten injured.

"At least Bour, for a big guy, made kind of a gingerly slide," Leake said. "He took it easy on him."

Molina, who has been pushing to get back on the field all spring, said he continues to progress in strengthening his surgically repaired left thumb. He said trainers haven't told him yet when he can begin taking batting practice or when he might be able to hit in games. He was in the on-deck circle when Jedd Gyorko got thrown out trying to steal in the second inning. He caught the next inning, then was replaced by pinch hitter Mike Ohlman.

Molina said that while tagging out Bour, he had no flashbacks to the pain of Sept. 20, when the Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo slid into his glove hand and injured his thumb.

"I was ready. I wasn't thinking about anything," Molina said. "I just tried to get that guy out, and thank God that everything went right."

Molina, who has hit .242 with a .629 OPS against Leake in 34 plate appearances, said he looks forward to working with a pitcher who has such elite command. For his career, Leake has averaged 2.3 walks per nine innings.

"He's fun to catch," Molina said. "He puts the ball where he wants to, he locates and he splits the corners."