The ritual started under Saturday's fading daylight, as Jesus Flores brushed the dirt in the batter's box with his right foot, then his left and, finally, ground his right heel into the dirt. On the fourth pitch, Flores roped a 91 mph fastball from Atlanta Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy into the left-field bullpen at Nationals Park. The ball seemed to leap off Flores' bat.
This was all Flores wanted after almost three years of pain and questions about his right shoulder that used to feel like it was burning inside: an opportunity to prove he could play every day.
"This is the chance," the 27-year-old Washington Nationals' catcher said. "This is the opportunity."
In the last week, manager Davey Johnson, who, as a front-office adviser, suggested the Nationals pick Flores in the Rule 5 draft in 2006, noticed Flores returning to his old level. A better arm. Improved blocking and receiving pitches. Better timing at the plate. More like the man who was the Nationals' catcher of the future before Wilson Ramos arrived in Washington.
"Two years ago," Johnson said, "[Flores] was a great No. 1 catcher."
But Flores wonders if his right shoulder, finally healthy, will ever be the same. Swinging a bat feels fine, delivering a .312 on-base percentage and five extra-base hits over 94 at-bats this season. The shoulder is strong. But ...
"It doesn't feel normal," Flores said earlier this year. "I don't think it's ever going to feel normal. At least [I] can control the shoulder again. It's not like before."
When Ramos tore multiple ligaments in his right knee last month to end his season, Flores took his spot and resumed the journey interrupted by a foul ball off his shoulder in May 2009. The ball broke Flores' clavicle and threw his once-promising career into doubt.
Months passed, and the shoulder felt like it was burning inside. Flores figured it was tendinitis. But the burning continued. When he tried to throw, his shoulder went weak. He didn't feel like he could control his arm.
He tried to play through the pain.
"I started feeling it more and more because it was a big, serious injury," Flores said. "I didn't know what was going on, and then the doctors told me it was just tendinitis. That's why I think I hurt it more."
In September 2009, Flores was diagnosed with a SLAP tear of his right labrum. The injuries can be tricky to diagnose and trickier to return from. Last year, the same injury robbed Adam LaRoche of his power and, eventually, the majority of the Nationals first baseman's season.
During the rehabilitation, Flores counted three major setbacks. He was doing too much, he concedes, overworking the shoulder and, unknowingly,extending the rehabilitation. He heard ominous stories about players not returning from the injury.
So, Flores preached a simple message to himself.
"Be really patient," he said. "Patient, patient, patient."
That's the same approach Flores brought to his wait to play each day again. A backup is not how he envisions himself, not how he talks, not how he acts.
During the rehabilitation, returning to a starting job — not just returning — was his goal. He's more confident, mentally and physically. He's more focused, expecting to play when he arrives at the ballpark instead of watching from the dugout.
"Since last year, I started building and preparing myself and waiting," Flores said, "to have another chance."
That chance is now.
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