Thursday, August 14, 2008

With the production Jesus Flores has brought to the Washington Nationals‘ lineup at age 23 and four months removed from the minor leagues, it’s easy to forget teachable moments still crop up.

There was one Tuesday night in the sixth inning of Washington’s 4-3 loss to the Mets when Flores momentarily forget how much he’s counted on to drive in runs.

He decided to bunt with no outs and a runner on second but tapped the ball back to the mound and nearly got Lastings Milledge picked off second.

It was a simple mistake by the catcher, who leads the Nationals with 52 RBI and is consequently asked to swing away in almost all circumstances. Manager Manny Acta discussed the decision with Flores, explained why the team needs him not to bunt in that situation and now trusts the lesson will stick with him.

“He just told me that I had the opportunity to swing,” Flores said. “Don’t miss those opportunities to swing the bat.”

The mistake was a rare one for Flores, who has impressed the Nationals with his progress at the plate and his ability to handle a pitching staff. Called up in May after Paul Lo Duca was hit in the hand by a pitch, Flores almost immediately shed the struggles he had been having at the plate with Class AAA Columbus and is now a fixture in the middle of Washington’s lineup.

He entered Wednesday’s game batting .276 and had eight homers to go with his 52 RBI.

“He’s very good. He’s very smart. He’s way ahead of a 23-year-old,” Acta said. “I think we all know that.”

Flores also is hitting .370 with runners in scoring position, which made the decision to bunt even more of a missed opportunity.

“Maybe in a year or two, we’re loaded here, and he hits seventh, eighth and maybe he can do it,” Acta said. “But right now, he has to understand that, and I think he learned the right thing.”

Boone back Friday?

Third baseman Aaron Boone, who has been out since early July with a strained left calf, could return to the Nationals on Friday.

Acta said Wednesday the team expects to activate Boone from a rehab assignment at Class AAA Columbus after Thursday night’s game. The move likely would mean Alberto Gonzalez, who hasn’t played since sustaining a bruise on one of his left gluteal muscles last week, would head to the disabled list.

Boone, who is hitting .258 with five homers and 17 RBI for the Nationals this season, has not had a hit in his first three games at Columbus.

No quick return for Dukes

Left fielder Elijah Dukes surpassed expectations in how quickly he returned from a torn right patellar tendon this month, but after he strained his right calf in his second game back, Acta isn’t expecting a repeat performance of Dukes’ speedy return.

Dukes, who was projected to be out four to six weeks after getting injured Aug. 3, has taken batting practice. But because calf injuries are so tricky to diagnose - Boone has been out more than a month with the same injury in his left leg, and Ronnie Belliard missed nearly a month with a left calf injury - Acta isn’t holding out hope for Dukes to beat this one.

“I’m not foreseeing that miraculous quick recovery on this. This is a total different thing,” Acta said. “The calf is a very sensitive area. Any time you walk or push off, you put pressure on that. So we don’t have any timetable for him.”

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