Seventy-five minutes before Saturday’s scheduled first pitch, Nationals catcher Jesus Flores was nestled in a leather recliner, watching the Game of the Week on TV. In the recliner next to Flores was right-hander Jason Marquis, Saturday night’s starting pitcher. Between innings and during breaks in the action, the battery mates went over the Colorado Rockies’ lineup, discussing hitters’ tendencies and their own game plan.
For most catchers, this is a routine performed before every game with every starting pitcher. For Flores, who was starting his first game since May 9, 2009, the meeting took on added significance. After missing most of two seasons with a series of shoulder injuries that threatened his career, Flores is back where he wants to be.
“It’s been a lot of time to be back up here,” said Flores, who was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse on Friday to replace the injured Ivan Rodriguez on the Washington roster. “Knowing the situation, I wouldn’t like to be, because one of my teammates just got hurt. But this is the business and tonight is a big night for me, coming back (after) a couple of years. I just want to show that I’m back, that I’m well and that everything’s working right. I feel in great shape.”
Flores hit .234 with five homers and 30 RBIs in 56 games with the Chiefs and made the most of his opportunity to demonstrate to the Nationals brass that he was fully recovered and able to catch on a regular basis.
This is Flores’ second tour with the Nats this season. He was recalled from Syracuse on April 12 and returned April 22, going 1-for-2 as a pinch hitter. He pinch hit again Friday night, striking out in the seventh inning.
The shoulder problems he had began with a stress fracture in his shoulder blade, an injury sustained in his last start. What was supposed to be a few days off became a troubling malady that was at first misdiagnosed.as a contusion. Instead of a few days off, he missed four months before returning to make three September pinch-hitting appearances.
In the offseason, he was found to have a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and by spring training, he hadn’t healed sufficiently to allow him to throw. Flores would catch bullpen sessions and flip the ball to a coach or staff member, who would throw it back to the pitcher.
He missed all of 2010, and came to spring training in Viera, Fla., in February with question marks attached to his attempt to crack the 25-man roster. Then-manager Jim Riggleman’s sessions with reporters frequently included updates on Flores’ health peppered with responses about a lack of strength in his surgically repaired shoulder muddling Flores’ status.
Through it all, Flores never doubted that he’d be back in the majors - and back behind the plate. When he started 90 games in 2008, it was assumed Flores, a Rule 5 pick out of the New York Mets organization at the 2006 Winter Meetings, was being fast-tracked to be the Nationals’ catcher of the future.
“Not at all,” Flores said. “I always trust myself. I’ve been working really hard, trying to do my best. With my health now, I feel I can do whatever I want. It’ s been a long time coming back, but I feel great.”
Despite the time he’s spent in the majors, there’s still something of a learning curve as Flores reacquaints himself with the Nationals, and vice-versa.
“It’s just getting used to it again - to my teammates, to the team here,” he said. “It’s watching videos, talking to your pitchers. It’s communication. That way you feel more confidence and it feels easier when you’re on the field.”