- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

There was a time when Jesus Flores was undergoing lengthy rehab after shoulder surgery that the Nationals catcher thought he’d never again make it back to the major leagues.

But Flores, finally recovered from the 2009 labrum procedure, got the call he’d been waiting for Monday night. The Nationals decided to recall Flores to fill the roster spot vacated when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman went to the disabled list with an abdominal strain.

“Everything I’ve been going through the last couple of years worked out for me,” Flores said, all smiles in the Nationals’ clubhouse Tuesday afternoon. “Finally, I got the call and now my main thing is to stay healthy and play hard whenever the manager puts me on the field.

“I never thought I was going to be back here again, and now I’m really excited to be on the big league team again and I feel happy [about] it.”

The Nationals plan to use Flores, who is the third catcher on the team’s roster behind Wilson Ramos and Ivan Rodriguez, mostly as a pinch hitter. They chose to go that route knowing they could use veteran utility men Jerry Hairston Jr. or Alex Cora at third base along with left fielder Michael Morse, who was drafted as a shortstop.

The three have combined to play just 75 games at third base in their respective careers. Hairston, who got the start there Tuesday night, is the most experienced at the position with 55 games under his belt. Cora has played just 12, Morse eight.

But the Nationals felt confident enough that they had the personnel to play there in Zimmerman’s absence - which could be the minimum 15 days but could also be longer. Cora, who has primarily been a second baseman and shortstop in the major leagues, purposefully took extra grounders at third during the spring and got into a few spring training games there as well. Cora played third Sunday and admitted that if he’d been asked to play there without that spring work, he wouldn’t have felt very confident at the position, but he does now.

“It’s a cage,” Cora said. “[As a middle infielder] you’re so used to going to your right and left and have time to react and move your feet and get around the ball and stuff. All of a sudden, you’re at third and it’s just a reaction play. … Early in my career when I did it, every time they fouled a ball I took like two steps to my right and I’m like, ‘Where are you going?’”

The playing time could be pretty evenly divided among Hairston, Cora and Morse, provided that Laynce Nix can do a passable job filling in for Morse in left field - and as long as first baseman Adam LaRoche, himself nursing shoulder and groin injuries, also doesn’t need time off. Morse is the team’s backup first baseman, too.

“I think the guys we acquired this winter, this is the type of thing that will help you justify why you do it,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “You’re not going to replace a Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup totally. It does take a little of the sting out of it having a left-handed hitter like Nix who, when he’s going good, he can drive some balls in the gap himself.”

There are certainly a lot of moving parts in the Nationals’ current lineup - pinch-hitting specialist Matt Stairs, for example, got the start at first base Tuesday night, batting cleanup - but without Zimmerman, the Nationals decided to make a move they felt gave them flexibility with an already versatile lineup.

Flores gives the Nationals another right-handed bat off the bench and allows them to pinch hit with their backup catcher without the fear of not having one on the bench. Flores was the everyday catcher for Triple-A Syracuse, going 2-for-13 in the team’s first four games. In 29 major league games in 2009 before the surgery, Flores hit .301 with a .505 on-base percentage, four home runs and 15 RBI.

“He’s so talented,” Riggleman said. “He can really swing the bat. I think if you can hit, usually someway you find your way back to the big leagues. He’s gone through so much with his arm. It had to be tough. We’re really glad to be able to reward him for all that hard work by getting him up here. I don’t know where he’s going to go from there. It’s got to be a good feeling for him to be a big leaguer again.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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