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Flores Powers Nats to Victory

The Nationals' Jesus Flores, left, is congratulated by teammate Ronnie Belliard after Flores hits a two-run home run in the seventh inning.
The Nationals' Jesus Flores, left, is congratulated by teammate Ronnie Belliard after Flores hits a two-run home run in the seventh inning. (Kevin P. Casey - AP)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008; 2:17 AM

SEATTLE, June 14 -- After the Washington Nationals' 5-2 victory Saturday night against Seattle, the 23-year-old pitcher who got the win and the 23-year-old catcher who hit the winning home run both talked about their status as big leaguers. The pitcher had just lost his status. The catcher had just cemented his.

Against the Mariners, Tyler Clippard had just earned his first win with the Nationals, pitching into seventh inning while allowing two runs. He looked, Manager Manny Acta said, like a player who deserved to pitch more.

But when Clippard (1-1) reentered the clubhouse after the game, he learned he'd be sent back to Class AAA Columbus, a transaction that will become official before the Tuesday series against Minnesota. Clippard had just loaded his dinner plate with cornbread and mac-and-cheese when management called him into a side office. Catcher Paul Lo Duca, out since May 9 with a right hand fracture, was finally healthy, Clippard was, and ready to return.

News that Clippard was part of the corresponding transaction continued his unorthodox week. Indeed, the right-hander had pitched Monday in the big leagues -- his Washington debut -- spent four intermittent days in the minors, and reappeared here just in time to make another start.

When Clippard sat back down with his food, the injured pitcher he replaced, Odalis Perez, walked by and offered a congratulatory fist pump. On this night, Clippard showed little resemblance to the pitcher who'd sputtered Monday in the latter part of a 4-1/3-inning, three-run effort. His return to Class AAA Columbus after that game, against San Francisco, was both expected and understandable. His fastball command, the coaching staff felt, still needed attention. Plus, Perez felt confident he'd be ready to pitch by the weekend.

Of course, plans change, and injuries defy prediction.

Perez landed on the disabled list, not the pitcher's mound.

Clippard learned four days ago -- while rooting for his Clippers teammates -- that he would soon leave them again for another chance with Washington.

One of Clippard's Columbus teammates, by the way, was Lo Duca, making a rehab appearance.

Before Lo Duca got hurt, he had Washington's starting catcher's job. Upon return, he'll have something different -- a place to watch Jesus Flores, the catcher whose two-run homer in the seventh broke a 2-2 tie and gave Clippard the win.

"It's still about four months to go, but the way he's playing right now, there's no way we'll be able to not play the kid and not be able to feel like he's part of our lineup right now," Acta said. "He's doing it offensively, defensively. And as far as Paul is concerned, he'll get his playing time, too. The kid is not going to catch every day."

Flores, recalled from Columbus on the same day when Lo Duca headed to the disabled list, has used the opportunity to plant himself in the Nationals lineup. Following his 2-for-4 game, he's hitting .327 and supplying more consistent power than any of his teammates. His blast Saturday against Seattle pitcher Miguel Batista provided not just a lead, but also a moment of uncertainty.

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