- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | The Washington Nationals’ bench is about to get its linchpin back.

Manager Manny Acta said utility player Willie Harris is expected to be activated for Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Harris, who has been out since April 13 with a strained left oblique, was scheduled to play at Class AAA Syracuse on Monday night to complete his rehab assignment and join the Nationals on Tuesday.

The move would restore some of the veteran presence the Nationals had on the bench to start the year. The complement of middle infielders will get even deeper Wednesday, when Cristian Guzman is expected to come off the disabled list for the third game of the series against the Phillies.

Guzman, who has been out since April 14, will start at shortstop and lead off. That means Harris will see more time in the outfield, Acta said Monday.

“He’s going to be one of our extra outfielders,” Acta said. “He’ll probably have more chances to go back to the outfield than the infield.”

Following that line of thought, it means Justin Maxwell’s stint in the major leagues probably has an April expiration date. The center fielder was called up from Syracuse on April 19 after Roger Bernadina broke his right ankle and has played well in the little time he has been in the lineup. Maxwell had three hits over the weekend in New York, and he stole two bases and walked once during Sunday’s win over the Mets. But Acta stated again Monday that the Nationals would like the 25-year-old, who missed most of last season with a broken wrist and still needs some seasoning offensively, to play every day.

“I think our preference would be that Maxie gets more at-bats,” Acta said.

Flores blooms defensively

There has been a buzz the last few days about catcher Jesus Flores’ offensive output - Flores hit two homers over the weekend against the Mets and drove in five runs, the highlight of an eight-game stretch in which he has hit .407. But the Nationals are just as concerned - if not more - with the 24-year-old’s growth defensively.

That’s the area of his game in which Flores has grown the most.

The Venezuela native has made marked strides learning English and isn’t afraid to ask for help on words he doesn’t understand, Acta said. That has helped him develop better relationships with pitchers, and as Flores gets more confident in the Nationals’ approach to hitters, he’s more willing to be firm with a pitcher when he needs to be.

“He takes it hard when guys either can’t follow the pitching plan or want to get out of it,” Acta said. “That’s something we really like about him. Even in 2007, he showed he had some leadership skills. You do sometimes have to show the pitchers that you’re in charge and not be afraid to confront somebody. We were very surprised when he did that in 2007 a couple times. He has gained every one of those guys’ respect. Nobody sees him anymore as a Rule 5 young kid.”

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