By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009
NEW YORK, April 26 -- When Jesús Flores walked to the batter's box in the second inning on Sunday, he didn't think about the Eighty Percent Rule. By that point, he didn't need to; its logic stuck with him even when he didn't recite it.
Flores faced a critical situation: A runner stood in scoring position in a game the Washington Nationals already trailed. In too many similar situations this season, Washington hitters have tried to answer such big moments with even bigger effort, a floundering strategy antithetical to what hitting coach Rick Eckstein kept talking about. Flores merely tried to do something small, and ended up changing the game.
In many ways, Washington's 8-1 victory against the New York Mets at Citi Field resembled a breakthrough. Though it included some reliable starting pitching from rookie Jordan Zimmermann, a six-hit fourth inning, and a home run from Austin Kearns that nearly landed at LaGuardia, those accomplishments only paraded through the door that Flores opened wide.
Flores's second-inning home run, his second of the weekend, flipped a deficit into a 2-1 lead. It eased the burden on Zimmermann, pitching in front of 40,023. It demonstrated much-needed evidence of Washington's ability to hit in clutch situations. And it created a sea change in mood, U-turning a team away from a series sweep and another here-we-go-again loss.
"I mean, it was definitely a spark," center fielder Justin Maxwell said.
"No doubt," Eckstein said. "It was a big at-bat. It was a momentum-shifter."
For as long as he's been in baseball, Eckstein has heard about -- and preached -- the Eighty Percent Rule. He tells his players about it. He hopes it can guide their mind-sets in clutch moments -- even though such moments, this year, have proven to be Washington's consistent downfall.
"What happens, your heart is in the right place: 'Okay, I want to be the guy.' But you're almost breathing fire, you want to get it done so bad," Eckstein said. "But you have to learn to step out and relax. Take control. Easy. Eighty percent. Because the natural game is going to speed you up a little bit."
Solving the situational hitting problem seems a pertinent focal point, because its trick -- recognizing an imposing moment while retaining your discipline -- resembles the challenge facing a team (like Washington) that must recover from a bad start without freaking out about the road to recovery.
Flores, though, can offer some guidance. To start the second inning, Washington received a gifted opportunity, the sort of thing the Nationals have reliably failed to convert. Kearns tagged a fly ball to left, and New York's Daniel Murphy chased after it like a child chasing a butterfly. His legs twisted. He spun around. He fell down. The ball dropped. Kearns arrived on second, the play somehow ruled a double.
Though Flores had struggled early this year with runners in scoring position -- thus soliciting the counsel from Eckstein -- his history suggested what he could do. Last year, his first as Washington's starting catcher, Flores hit five of his eight home runs with runners in scoring position. With none on, he hit .222 and slugged .335. With men a hit away from scoring, Flores batted .370 and slugged .609.
"Body language-wise, he just has a knack for slowing things down, and you can really see him bearing down," Eckstein said. "And that's part of hitting in crucial situations. Taking control of the moment. Not letting the moment take control of you. And I think that's where Flo has really done a very good job."
Here, Flores adhered to a basic approach. He just wanted to move Kearns to third base. He waited for the right pitch. New York lefty Oliver Pérez ran the count to 2-2, and Flores shortened his swing. "I didn't try to pull it," he said.
He did anyway. In the first of many poor pitches, Pérez flung a fastball over the middle of the plate. Flores crushed it over the 384-foot sign in left-center. He finished 3 for 4 with three RBI and boosted his average to .327.
In retrospect, that home run loosened up the visiting dugout and triggered Washington's best game of the season. Zimmermann, in his second big league start, lacked his best fastball but improved as the game moved deeper. The only run he allowed came in the first. He struck out Carlos Beltrán, Carlos Delgado and David Wright a combined five times.
Said Zimmermann: "It's easy when you get a lot of run support."
The support grew in the third, when the Nationals added two runs, helped by Flores's RBI single. In the fifth, they broke the game open, knocking Pérez from the game and scoring four runs.
In that half inning, nine came to the plate. Six got hits. The only outs were a Josh Willingham fly against the left field wall, a Zimmermann strikeout, and a hard Adam Dunn liner to second. Most impressive was Kearns's solo home run, sent 420 feet on a laser path to dead center. By the time the inning ended, the Nationals led 8-1.
"We needed a game like this," Manager Manny Acta said.