The Washington Times - March 14, 2012, 11:31PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Almost six years ago now, the Washington Nationals’ signed a speedy 17-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic named Eury Perez in whom they saw a future. He won the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League batting title in 2009 and in 2010 Baseball America ranked him as the Nationals’ No. 8 prospect.

Here’s what they had to say about him then:

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Perez sticks out most with his well above-average speed, and he became a much better basestealer last year. He finished second in the minors with 64 steals and succeeded at an 83 percent rate, up from 67 percent in 2009. The Nationals challenged him to play shallower in center field and trust that his speed would allow him to catch up with balls over his head. He projects as a plus defender with an average, accurate arm.

Average, accurate arm. 

While the rest of the scouting report appears to be on the money with Perez, who has continued to impress the Nationals’ officials and is someone they consider as a future center fielder at the major league level, Wednesday night his arm was well above average.

In the seventh inning, with Drew Sutton standing on second base, Joey Terdoslavich sent a fly ball to right field, where Perez played all evening in the Nationals’ 6-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves. 

Inside the Nationals’ dugout, the players who know what Perez can do saw the play developing and began to root for a show. Hoping Sutton would challenge Perez’s arm.

Perez read it, circled it, caught it — and then fired a bullet directly to third base to nab Sutton, who was attempting to tag up.

“That was pretty exciting,” said Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, himself an occasional purveyor of the impressive outfield assist. “He just reared back and got him.”

The first thing you hear about Perez from Nationals coaches and scouts is that he’s speedy. He’s not a power hitter by any means but he could serve as a tablesetter in the future. In short, he’s exactly the kind of player the Nationals have been searching for at the major league level. He’s just still a few years away.

But he’s getting an extended look this spring and by making plays the way he did Wednesday night, he’s taking advantage of it. 

Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who scouted the team’s system extensively during his time as a consultant to general manager Mike Rizzo prior to taking on the managerial role, was unsurprised by Perez’s arm strength. Johnson has previously listed Perez among the most improved players in the Nationals’ system over the past few years, along with outfielders Destin Hood and Michael Taylor. All three profile as center fielders of the future for the Nationals.

“(Perez has) got a lot of talent,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a whole bevy of outfielders with talent and he’s one of the top ones.”

– Nationals catcher Jesus Flores had a strong night at the plate Wednesday, going 3-for-3 with a home run. Flores is now hitting .368 on the spring, continuing to lend credence to the idea that he’s returning more and more each day to the player he was before a shoulder injury stole two years of his career.

– One highlight of Stephen Strasburg’s outing Wednesday was watching him face off with future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones in the first inning. Jones swung at all four pitches he saw from Strasburg, missing the first, fouling off the next two and swinging through the fourth. 

On the stadium gun, it appeared the Strasburg threw a 99-mph fastball to start, followed it up with another 99 mph one that Jones fouled off, dropped in an 81-mph curveball for the second foul and then sent Jones to the dugout with a 93-mph changeup. On MLB Network, which was broadcasting the game, the fastballs came in at 97 and the changeup at 91. Either way, Jones looked completely overmatched. He did at least make contact in his second at-bat, grounding out to first baseman Adam LaRoche.

– It was a good night for several of the players competing for a bench spot on the Nationals with Chad Tracy going 2-for-4 with a two-run homer and an RBI-single as the team’s DH for the night, Jason Michaels going 1-for-1 as a sub and Brett Carroll getting on-base with a walk and scoring.

– Ryan Mattheus had a rough outing Wednesday, allowing two earned runs off four hits (one a home run) in one inning of work. Mattheus struck out one but it surely wasn’t the type of outing he was hoping for as he tries to battle for a spot in the Nationals’ bullpen this spring. Johnson noted later that he, like a lot of power pitchers, can struggle in the spring as they refine their control. 

“Totally overthrowing,” Johnson said. “Trying to get too much out of it instead of pitching. You see that time and time again this time of year with good arms.”