- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2008

SEATTLE - Sometime in the next few days, probably Tuesday, the Washington Nationals will activate Paul Lo Duca off the disabled list, adding an important veteran hitter back to their roster.

And in all likelihood, Lo Duca will have to make his contribution from a seat on the bench.

Jesus Flores has simply hit too well, caught too well and become far too valuable to the Nationals to be banished to a reserve role now. The 23-year-old catcher has been nothing short of spectacular since taking over a month ago when Lo Duca broke his right hand, and with another clutch performance Saturday night in a 5-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners, he reiterated that point with an emphatic punch.

Flores drove in three of Washington’s four runs and delivered the game-winning blow: a two-run homer off Miguel Batista in the seventh inning that snapped a 2-2 tie and propelled the Nationals to their second straight win at Safeco Field.

Flores’s fourth homer of the season was only the latest in a string of clutch hits for the young catcher. He’s now batting a hefty .327 with 23 RBI in 32 games. His .584 slugging percentage leads the club, and none of that takes into account his sterling defensive work that has pitchers raving.

“I’m really confident,” the second-year player said. “Right now, I know Im living the best moment at this level.”

All of that has led the Nationals to come to the conclusion that Flores, not Lo Duca, will get the bulk of the playing time henceforth. Lo Duca, a four-time All-Star who signed last winter for $5 million, is expected to be activated off the DL Tuesday in time for the start of Washington’s series at Minnesota.

Manager Manny Acta wont formally reveal his intentions until the move is made, but all signs point to Flores continuing to get the bulk of the playing time, with Lo Duca accepting a diminished role.

“There’s still about four months to go and a lot of at-bats left,” Acta said. “But the way he’s playing right now, there’s no way were going to be able to not play the kid and not be able to feel like he’s part of our lineup right now.”

Flores’s latest heroics came in the top of the seventh of a 2-2 ballgame. With two outs and a man on second, Batista heaved a 2-2 pitch toward the plate, then spun around to watch as the ball sailed toward the left-field fence. Raul Ibanez nearly made a spectacular catch to rob the homer, but his leaping stab came up short and Flores circled the bases to near-silence from the crowd of 32,145.

“I didn’t know that the ball was out of the park,” he said. “When I turned my eyes up … I thought he caught it.”

The two-run shot gave the Nationals (28-42) the lead for good and gave starter Tyler Clippard a much-deserved victory after a wild week of travel. The right-hander has earned enough frequent flier miles this month to send his entire family to Hawaii for free.

A week ago, he was in Toledo, preparing to make his next start for Class AAA Columbus. Then he got the call up to Washington to face the Giants. Sent back down immediately after suffering a 3-2 loss to San Francisco, he returned to Columbus, only to learn the next day he’d be needed back in the big leagues … in Seattle.

Clippard (1-1) could think of only one word to describe his week: Crazy.

The 23-year-old arrived at Safeco Field Saturday afternoon, shook the hands of teammates he only left five days before and then prepared to give the Nationals reason to keep him around a little longer this time.

In control and efficient from the start, he held the Mariners scoreless through three innings. He hit a bump in the road in the fourth — allowing homers to Jose Vidro and Adrian Beltre in a span of three batters — but even those bombs weren’t crippling because the bases were empty each time.

Clippard’s past troubles have usually come as a result of a lack of command; he walked four in only 4 1/3 innings in his previous start Monday. But he had no such difficulty Saturday night, failing to issue a single walk over his first five innings.

That kept his pitch count down and allowed him to return to the mound for the seventh, though thats when he finally hit the wall, putting two straight men on and bringing Acta out of the dugout to make a change.

Saul Rivera jogged in from the bullpen and quashed the Seattle rally in impressive fashion. Despite falling behind Yuniesky Betancourt 3-0, Rivera struck the No. 9 hitter out on a failed bunt attempt. Then he got Ichiro Suzuki, a man who had grounded into only 37 double plays in his eight-year career, to do just that.

“I mean, how many times do you get to get Ichiro to hit into a double play?” Acta said.

Suzuki grounded sharply to Felipe Lopez, who flipped to Cristian Guzman, who fired to Dmitri Young to end the inning with a flourish and preserve a victory for Clippard.

Despite his six-inning, two-run effort, the young pitcher still is headed back to Class AAA. With the Nationals needing to create a roster spot for Lo Duca, Acta said Clippard most likely will be optioned back to Columbus this week.

The right-hander understands the situation.

“Obviously, I want to be here and I feel like I should be here, but that stuff is out of my hands,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about it. I want to pitch well every time out, whether it’s here or [playing] softball or wherever.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT SAFECO FIELD

SEATTLE - The sight of Ryan Zimmerman playing catch four hours before Saturday night’s game had to be a comforting thought to the Nationals, who want to get their injured third baseman back.

But Zimmerman wore a left-handed glove. The reason: He’s not allowed to do any baseball activities with his injured left shoulder yet, including catching balls.

So Zimmerman threw right-handed, per usual, then stuck one of Ryan Langerhans’ gloves on his right hand to catch the return throw. He looked pretty natural doing it.

“I could play outfield left-handed right now,” he insisted later, though the smirk on his face indicated otherwise.

OVERHEARD “Terrible. I gave up 85 hits.” - Shawn Hill on Friday night, when he actually allowed 12 hits in five innings but still got the victory as the Nationals beat the Mariners 7-6.

TODAY’S GAME

Nationals: RHP Tim Redding Record, ERA:<$> 6-3, 4.29 Mariners: LHP Jarrod Washburn Record, ERA: 2-7, 6.09

Time: 4:10 p.m. TV: MASN2

- Mark Zuckerman

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