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Flores adjusting to his role as starting catcher

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — Two weeks ago, this would not have been a day Jesus Flores would have played. A light rain fell on a gray day as the Nationals catcher was preparing to play his eighth game in nine days.

Injuries have ravaged Washington's catching depth, first taking Wilson Ramos for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, then putting Sandy Leon on the shelf for a month with a high ankle sprain. As a result, Flores has gone from bench player to iron man.

In a span of 10 days, he has possibly become the one man the Nationals can least afford to lose.

"I feel good," Flores said Monday. "So far, my body has just been getting used to it. My arm is feeling great. Mentally, you know, I feel fresh. The further we go, we'll see later on. But right now, I feel good."

The difference for Flores, he said, has been more mental. Now he must come to the park engaged each day in who the starting pitcher is, who is in the lineup they'll be facing and how they plan to attack each game.

"It's different preparation," he said. "Just taking care in a different way now."

Carlos Maldonado, called up from Triple-A on Tuesday, is serving as his backup. And while the Nationals have been rumored to be scouting catchers, a source familiar with the situation said the team is not actively pursuing a trade.

It is likely that Maldonado will not remain with the major league team for long, though. It's more likely that Leon, who is expected to be cleared for activity in another week, or Jhonatan Solano, who is on the minor league disabled list with a back problem, assumes the backup duties once either is healthy.

Leon is one of the Nationals' top prospects at the position, and they would like him to get regular at-bats, so that could be a consideration on where he will go. Solano is expected to return to the active roster soon, and it's not out of the question that a call-up could be in his future. If Solano joins the major league team, the Nationals could send Leon to Triple-A, even though he was playing for Double-A Harrisburg at the time of his call-up.

As for the starting job, though, the Nationals believe that Flores is capable of handling the everyday duties with Ramos out. Manager Davey Johnson acknowledged that it will take Flores time to adjust, physically and mentally. And while sources said the team would consider adding a veteran catcher as a backup, they are not willing to part with anything significant.

"We're having a tough time missing guys with injuries," Flores said. "The ones who are playing right now want to do more than they were doing before because we feel like we're missing weapons. Good weapons."

Since Ramos was injured May 12, Flores has hit .292 with a .308 on-base percentage and a .458 slugging percentage. He connected for his first home run of the season Sunday in the Nationals' 9-3 rout of the Baltimore Orioles. As a backup, Flores hit .200 with one extra-base hit.

"The last few games I've been feeling much better," Flores said. "More comfortable at the plate, trying to get used to the breaking balls and the way other teams are pitching me. Playing the way I was playing before, it was kind of hard. Now I'm feeling more confidence at the plate, swinging at better pitches, everything's coming now to get that rhythm that you need as an everyday player."

Notes: Johnson said Monday that Stephen Strasburg was fine after feeling a little bicep tightness or fatigue Sunday. The Nationals do not expect him to miss a start, and Strasburg was a full participant in the pitchers' ultimate frisbee conditioning game Monday afternoon.

• Right-hander Ryan Mattheus received X-rays on his left foot Monday after aggravating it while running. Mattheus, who had been feeling soreness in the foot for a few weeks, will see a specialist in Baltimore on Tuesday. If he requires a disabled list stint, the Nationals are expected to have Chien-Ming Wang with the team Tuesday anyway to throw a side session. He could be activated to fill Mattheus' roster spot.

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