Nats' Catcher Flores Is Bent on Improving

There are six catchers in Nationals camp, but Jesús Flores knows he has a firm hold on the position.
There are six catchers in Nationals camp, but Jesús Flores knows he has a firm hold on the position. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 16 -- One good test to see whether you think like a catcher? Gauge your excitement for the spring's first workout, a catcher's most thankless day. On Monday, Pat Corrales was wide awake by 4 a.m., no alarm necessary. Jesús Flores beat the sunrise, too -- 6:20 a.m., and he already had this feeling.

"Like I want to come here and go out and play baseball," Flores said.

"This is my love," Corrales said. "My second wife."

Baseball's pitchers and catchers report for workouts before the others, which is why Flores, the Washington Nationals' 24-year-old starting catcher, and Corrales, the team's 67-year-old spring instructor, spent their days attuned to the same quiet secrets, the little tricks of their position. See, on the first day of workouts, conducted Monday, the pitchers steal the show and the catchers are their props.

It's a day Corrales calls "pitching practice." Which means that Washington's catchers -- the team has six in camp -- spent Monday morning in a constant crouch, trying not to get sore, trying not to mess up, and, in passing moments, telling stories about what they know.

"For catchers," Corrales said, "this is where they work the hardest."

Corrales spent nine years as a big league catcher; he's spent his subsequent career as a manager and coach merely thinking like a catcher. Though Corrales was fired in September as a full-time bench coach, he's now with the Nationals in an advisory role, and he regards Flores as his star apprentice. Three little tips for Flores, then: He should clear his mind before every pitch. (Last year, Flores had a tendency to get worked up, though usually at himself.) He should be thankful for the opportunity to start. (Corrales spent the prime of his career stuck behind Johnny Bench.) He should focus mostly on his defense. ("I think he can be an outstanding defensive catcher," Corrales said, "and if he does that he's an all-star player.")

Flores has now channeled Corrales's confidence as his own. In 2007, he was a reticent Rule 5 draft pick, and last year, though he won the starting job by May, he needed to contend with his own learning curve -- and eventually, his own late-season slump. This year, though, he showed up and realized that "everything is different."

The No. 1 job is his, no question. And all the pain in his left ankle from the September home plate collision with Chase Utley, the blow that ended his season, is gone. All doubts about his health and his hitting ability? Flores chased those away, too, by playing in two winter baseball leagues.

And yes, Flores wants to have a breakout season. He retold the story this week of his offseason request for new batting gloves. He wanted Nike to customize a model marked with his No. 3 and "J-Flo." The company responded that they did so only for all-stars, Flores said.

Which leads to an obvious remedy. An all-star appearance.

"Oh for sure," Flores said, smiling. "This year."

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