Flores Hits Game-Winner in 9th
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Officials and coaches from the Washington Nationals have, by now, outright declared that they have a bit of an issue on their hands when it comes to the position of catcher as the team moves toward opening a new ballpark next season. Earlier this week, General Manager Jim Bowden was praising starter Brian Schneider, saying clearly, "Brian's our guy."
But Bowden knows why he's being asked. Take a look at last night, when backup Jesus Flores -- a 22-year-old in whom the Nationals have enormous hopes -- calmly laced a two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the ninth, essentially turning a loss into a 4-3 victory over the Florida Marlins.
That the crowd on hand was the smallest to witness a game at RFK Stadium since baseball returned to Washington in 2005 -- 15,611 tickets sold, lower than the 16,017 on April 5 -- hardly took anything away from Flores. Rather, it merely reinforced that the young Venezuelan, who hadn't played above Class A before this year and was selected in the Rule 5 draft, has developed a knack for producing when times are tight.
Thus, with two outs and runners at the corners in a game the Nationals trailed 3-2, Manager Manny Acta sent Flores to the plate to face Marlins closer Kevin Gregg. More seasoned hitters such as Ryan Church, Robert Fick and D'Angelo Jimenez remained on the bench.
"We trust the kid," Acta said. "He's got some huge hits for us. Why not keep him out there?"
That decision led Washington to its fourth straight victory. The Nationals now are in fourth place in the National League East with a two-game advantage over the Marlins, and they have stated that one of their goals is to stay out of last place over the final four weeks of the year.
Flores helped them do that, and he also erased an outing right-hander Shawn Hill found unacceptable -- although he gave up just three runs in 6 1/3 innings. The problems: Hill allowed 11 hits, his off-speed pitchers weren't crisp and he squandered a 2-0 lead. Never mind that the Nationals played some fundamentally shaky defense behind him.
"Get a lead again, and give that up," Hill said. "I just cannot be doing that."
Still, the Nationals will take that effort. And after they rid themselves of Marlins lefty Dontrelle Willis -- who threw 7 1/3 innings and allowed two runs -- they were ready to attack Gregg in the ninth. Dmitri Young drew a leadoff walk and Ryan Langerhans came in to pinch-run. After Austin Kearns struck out, Wily Mo Pe?a -- who had flailed at a pair of sliders from Gregg -- got a 3-2 fastball on the outside part of the plate and smartly poked it into right, sending Langerhans to third.
Ronnie Belliard then tried to push a bunt toward first base, but he popped it up, and there were two down. That left it to Flores, who over the weekend helped beat the San Francisco Giants with a mammoth homer and a tiebreaking single.
"What better way for him to grow as a big league ballplayer than putting him in those kind of situations to succeed?" Young said. "And he's succeeded."
All of this, Bowden said earlier in the week, has potentially altered the Nationals' plans for Flores. Originally, they figured he would need to spend next year catching every day in the minors. Now, even with Schneider -- who has struggled to a .230 average -- having $9.8 million remaining over the final two years of a contract that expires in 2009, they're not so sure.
"I consider Brian Schneider the best game-caller in baseball," Bowden said. "To develop the young pitchers we have this year could not have happened had Brian Schneider not been the catcher. . . . But as far as Jesus, does he have the ability to compete and win the job at some point? Yeah, he does."
Part of that has to do with how Flores has handled the mental aspects of his rookie year. Take last night. He dropped not one but two foul popups. He was so distraught that Acta and bench coach Pat Corrales, who has served as Flores's mentor, had to pump him up on the bench -- even though neither error led to runs.
"It took some psychology in the dugout," Acta said.
There was no psychology necessary after the game-winner, on which Flores drove a 1-1 fastball into the corner in left. When Marlins left fielder Josh Willingham took some time fishing the ball out, Pe?a thundered around from first to score, and Flores was embraced at midfield -- first by walk-off specialist Ryan Zimmerman, then by the whole team.
"It was an amazing moment," Flores said. Not the first for the rookie in a Nationals' uniform. And all signs indicate it won't be the last.