- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It’s tough to break out the doom-and-gloom stories about the Washington Nationals right now, given that they are only a day removed from their second longest winning streak since coming to the District. But the calamity-laden circumstances that marked their 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night sure felt like countless other defeats earlier this season.

They had a rally cut short because of a baserunning mistake. A front-line starter shut them out. And they lost a promising young player to injury.

Jesus Flores sprained his left ankle in a third-inning collision with Chase Utley at home plate, and depending on how serious the injury is, the 23-year-old catcher’s season could be over.

X-rays showed no sign of obvious fracture, and manager Manny Acta was optimistic Flores could return in 10 to 12 days, but the catcher will have an MRI on Wednesday. The Nationals called Class AAA Columbus catcher Luke Montz after the injury occurred to let him know he would be called up for the first time, an indicator that they don’t expect Flores back any time soon.

Flores’ injury overshadowed whatever disappointment the Nationals took out of seeing their winning streak end.

“It’s not so much because of the winning streak but because of who he is and how much we like him,” Acta said. “At that particular time, you don’t know how serious it is. You’re taken on a cart off the field, that’s why everybody was so down about it.”

The play would never have happened if Flores had handled Willie Harris’ attempt to throw out Carlos Ruiz at the plate cleanly earlier in the inning.

Harris’ throw home was right on line, and Flores turned to tag Ruiz for the third out of the inning - without the ball. He came up empty-handed as he swung his glove to his left, and Ruiz scored the Phillies’ first run. The next batter, Chase Utley, drove in Rollins with a single, sending the inning on to a juncture that would prove disastrous for Flores.

When Lannan tried to pick Jayson Werth off first base with Ryan Howard at the plate and the Nationals playing a pronounced shift that had third baseman Ryan Zimmerman lined up like a shortstop, Utley broke from third base, well behind Ronnie Belliard’s throw to Flores.

Utley’s only option was to railroad Flores and try to knock the ball loose. And in doing so, he slammed into Flores’ left leg.

The catcher hung on for the third out of the inning, but as soon as he tried to stand up, he collapsed into a heap at home plate. After trainers attended to him for several minutes, Flores was carted off the field.

It was an odd twist in the fact that Flores caught Lannan’s big league debut on July 26, 2007, when he broke Utley’s hand with a pitch at Citizens Bank Park and was subsequently ejected.

Utley said he didn’t know Flores was hurt until he came out for the bottom of the third. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel praised the second baseman’s aggressiveness.

“I wish every one of my players played that way,” he said, “That would be good.”

Acta, Lannan and Zimmerman said they consider the play dirty. They acknowledged that Utley is a hard-nosed player trying to score an extra run for a team in a close division race.

On offense, Washington was handled by Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, mounting an early rally but nonetheless getting shut out for a major league leading 20th time; the next-highest total in the major leagues in 13. It might have been a different story if the Nationals hadn’t run themselves out of their best chance to score.

The Nationals had runners on first and second with no outs in the second inning, only to see that scoring chance evaporate when Shane Victorino made a diving catch of Flores’ sinking liner in center. Certain it would fall in for a hit, both Elijah Dukes (at second base) and Ronnie Belliard (at third base) took off. Belliard had time to retreat, but Dukes was easily doubled off second.

“It was a great play by Victorino,” Acta said. “[Dukes] knows he did wrong. There was no outs, and you’ve got a runner in front of you. Most of the time, the third-base coach is not going to take a chance and send you home with no outs. These guys are learning up here, so hopefully it won’t happen again.”

It probably wasn’t the only thing from Tuesday’s game that Acta wished not to see again.

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