- 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.

“That guy’s really turned into some heck of a catcher,” Bergmann said. “I trust him with every pitch he put down there. … He’s really maturing and becoming a great catcher, a major league catcher.”

But will he have the opportunity to continue catching in the major leagues all season? Lo Duca, who makes a guaranteed $5 million this year, should return sometime next month. Estrada, who is owed $1.25 million, likewise hopes he will be healthy again by the end of June.

Flores said he doesn’t worry about such things. He has accepted the notion he could spend the bulk of 2008 in the minors, though he still intends to make this a difficult decision for the Nationals.

“That’s the only thing that I can do,” he said. “I can’t be thinking about it. The only thing I have to do is just be focused on what I have to do, just play hard every day. I don’t think about it. They will know what to do.”

NEW SERIES

MILWAUKEE BREWERS AT WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Nationals Park

7:35 p.m., RHP Jeff Suppan (2-3, 4.78) vs. LHP Odalis Perez (1-4, 4.34).

7:05 p.m., RHP Seth McClung (1-1, 3.54) vs. LHP John Lannan (4-4, 3.40).

1:35 p.m., LHP Manny Parra (2-2, 4.40) vs. RHP Tim Redding (6-3, 3.16).

1:35 p.m., RHP Ben Sheets (5-1, 2.92) vs. TBA.

This four-game series, which runs through Memorial Day, matches two teams hurting in two different areas. Without Nick Johnson, Washington’s lineup has appeared next to punchless, scoring eight runs in its last four games. The Brewers removed right-hander Carlos Villanueva from the rotation, replacing him with McClung on Wednesday. Unless his right elbow suffers a setback, Shawn Hill will start Monday for the Nationals.

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