Flores flourishing early in camp

VIERA, Fla. - Not too long ago, Jesus Flores was viewed as the Nationals’ catcher of the future.

Now, he’s just trying to prove he can stay healthy for a full season and contribute at the big league level.

Right shoulder problems - a fractured shoulder blade and a torn labrum - have in many ways wiped out the 27-year-old’s last three seasons. He played in just 29 games in 2009 and missed the entire 2010 campaign due to the injury, then struggled in 2011, hitting just .216 in 86 games between Washington and Triple-A Syracuse.

But so far this spring, Flores is off to a good start. He impressed the Nationals’ brass with a strong showing in winter ball, hitting .330 in 218 at-bats for the Navegantes de Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League, and reported to camp looking healthy and strong.

“I’ve liked everything I’ve seen about him,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Obviously, the winter helped him a great deal because he’s throwing a lot better, he looks more confident, more sure of himself, and he’s definitely swinging the bat.”

Flores was able to kick off his Grapefruit League season in fine fashion yesterday, ripping a line drive off the center field wall against Houston’s Kyle Weiland in his first at-bat and then adding another double, this one into the right field corner, off Brett Myers in his second plate appearance.

That performance led Johnson to say that Flores “looked in midseason form to me.”

Perhaps most importantly, Flores says he feels more sure of himself this spring. He proved to himself that he can still play at a high level in winter ball, and now he can aim to carry that momentum into spring training.

“Playing baseball in Venezuela, it helped me a lot,” Flores said after his impressive showing yesterday. “It helped me to gain all the confidence back. I feel good, I feel ready for it. That’s what I’m showing now. Just playing baseball and having fun.”

Unfortunately for Flores, his extended absence because of injury allowed the catcher-of-the-future label to be passed on to someone else - Flores’ countryman, Wilson Ramos.

Flores is aware he’s labeled as the Nationals’ No. 2 catcher behind Ramos this season, but he says he won’t let the backup role limit the way he prepares this spring.

“If that’s what it is, I’m prepared for it,” Flores said. “I’m ready for it. I just want to do my job and show that I can be a regular catcher. But if this is the case, I just want to help the team win and do the best with Wilson. I know for sure he wants to do the same thing.”

Dan Kolko was named MASNsports.com’s Nationals beat writer after spending the last four years covering the Baltimore Ravens for MASN and also serving as the Web site’s deputy managing editor. A University of Delaware graduate originally from Silver Spring, Md., Dan grew up a die-hard baseball fan and is thrilled for the opportunity to cover the Nationals. Before joining MASN, Dan worked in production at Comcast SportsNet in Bethesda, Md., and also interned at the “George Michael Sports Machine” in Washington, D.C.

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