- 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.

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