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Yadier Molina takes first live swings against Cardinals' top pitching prospect

LAKELAND, Fla. -- While the St. Louis Cardinals were losing to the Detroit Tigers, 5-4, on Thursday, a more meaningful scene was playing out a few hours east, on the back fields of their spring training complex.

Catcher Yadier Molina took his first swings off a pitcher all spring. The Cardinals didn't ease him in, sending him up against their top pitching prospect, Alex Reyes, whose fastball has been known to brush 100 mph. Molina, who singled to center off Reyes, appears to have cleared the final hurdle, with his availability for Opening Day -- barring an unexpected setback -- looking more and more likely.

He had left thumb surgery twice this offseason, most recently in December.

Molina has played in four spring training games, but until Thursday had not been cleared to swing. He struck out looking three times and successfully bunted over a runner. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called Thursday's development "a big deal." It's believed Molina could be cleared for full participation by Sunday, with the Cardinals at home against the Miami Marlins, who have not announced a starter for that game yet.

"That's what we were hoping to get him to," Matheny said. "He's been real good about staying on track, following the medical staff's template they put in place a long time ago. He keeps doing his part and moving things forward."

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, after watching Molina's at-bats -- he also struck out swinging once against Reyes and grounded out against another minor-league pitcher -- told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "it appears" Molina will be ready for Opening Day.

Reyes, 21, is not in major-league camp because he is serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for marijuana use. He will miss the first 40 games of the season.