The ballclub’s former and current top player at his position, Flores rose to the top of the depth chart in May after Wilson Ramos suffered a season-ending knee injury that will require at least two surgeries to repair.
In November, Ramos, a fast-rising standout on a team full of them, was kidnapped at gunpoint in his native Venezuela. Rescued unharmed after two harrowing-beyond-belief days, Ramos put the staggering incident behind him — only to be knocked out by his own body.
Flores had hoped to win back the job (he lost it while sitting out most of the 2009 season and all of 2010 because of a shoulder injury) through competition. He would rather not have benefited from his countryman’s misfortune (their home towns in Venezuela are just 325 miles apart), especially after Ramos’s kidnapping nightmare.
It would be understandable (appropriate?) for an athlete to feel a degree of guilt about experiencing good fortune at the expense of a teammate’s pain. It’s clearly a less-than-ideal situation, though one as common as the sight of a catcher crouching.
“I feel sorry for everything that happened to him,” Flores said of Ramos on Tuesday night before the Nationals began a three-game series against the New York Mets. “I know it’s sad because he’s such a good player. But that’s baseball sometimes.”
It’s also football, basketball, hockey, soccer — just pick any team sport. Whether a team maintains a high level of play often depends on the talent of its backups, and the Nationals have benefited from having Flores in reserve.
Behind the plate and at it, Flores has made a smooth transition to being a No. 1 catcher again. Changing primary receivers hasn’t bothered the major leagues’ best pitching staff, which has played the biggest role in the Nationals maintaining their lead in the better-than-expected National League East.
Nationals pitchers view Flores as “a guy who you can rely on the whole game,” said perpetually upbeat left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who is off to a start worthy of Cy Young Award consideration in his first season with the club.
“He’s the lead guy now and he really has taken over the rotation. He knows what he wants to do out there. You might shake him off once all game out of all of the pitches you throw. He mixes it up, wants you to attack the strike zone, and he really has helped out a lot with all of the success I’ve been having.”
Defensively, Flores has done a textbook job of blocking balls in the dirt (“He actually does that better than Ramos,” Manager Davey Johnson said). He has also has been more efficient against runners attempting to steal: Flores has thrown out 27 percent; Ramos was at 17 percent when he was knocked out for the season.