- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Jesus Flores wasn’t supposed to be here, not right now, not playing every day in the big leagues in 2008.

The Washington Nationals had devised a perfectly acceptable plan for their 23-year-old catcher. With Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada providing offensive production at the plate and veteran leadership behind it, Flores would spend his season at Class AAA Columbus, refining his game so he would be ready to take over in Washington in 2009.

So much for best-laid plans.

While Lo Duca and Estrada nurse injuries that will keep each on the disabled list at least another month, Flores is thriving under the big league spotlight. He’s playing almost every day for the Nationals, hitting .357 and earning praise from all corners for his catching prowess.

“Flo is becoming an asset around here that we can’t do without,” right-hander Jason Bergmann said Tuesday.

High acclaim for a player with 93 games of major league experience. But the Nationals touted Flores as their catcher of the future the moment they selected him away from the New York Mets in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, and he has done nothing to dispel that notion since.

Which potentially leaves the organization facing the following dilemma: What do you do with Flores when Lo Duca and Estrada return from the DL?

“We’ll cross the bridge when we get there,” manager Manny Acta said. “I don’t even know if I’m going to be alive when Lo Duca comes back. That’s too far down the line.”

In deflecting that question, Acta might have said more than he realized. The Nationals said in spring training Flores needed to play every day and would benefit from spending the season in the minors. That they are even willing to leave the possibility open to Flores remaining in Washington once Lo Duca returns could indicate a change in philosophy within the front office.

“It’s going to be extremely hard to take him out of the lineup if he plays like this,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “We’re about developing players. But that being said, let’s see how it goes. You can’t judge over a month or six weeks. You have to take a whole season.”

Flores‘ latest resurgence with the Nationals hasn’t even encompassed two weeks; the team recalled him from Columbus May 10 after Lo Duca went on the DL with a broken right hand and Estrada suffered nerve irritation in his right elbow. But he made an impression in a short amount of time.

In 10 starts since his recall, Flores has 11 hits, five of them doubles. He has drawn six walks, scored five runs, driven in four runs and earned the confidence of his manager to bat sixth in the lineup.

“I really feel that I’ve been improving myself a lot,” the Venezuelan native said. “I feel really confident in myself, and I feel this is the opportunity for me to show them that I can be here for a long time.”

Flores‘ most significant strides have come behind the plate. Tentative at times last season as a rookie, he has become more assertive, not to mention more adept at fielding popups and corralling wayward balls after struggling at times last season.

Pitchers have said Flores‘ game-calling skills have improved markedly. He does a better job of sticking with the club’s game plan for each opposing hitter, and he will not give in to his pitchers when they want to change something up.

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