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Catcher's Return Could Give Pitching a Boost

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009

Within a few days -- perhaps by Monday -- Jesús Flores, out since May 9 with a right shoulder contusion, will begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment. Already, the Washington Nationals' everyday catcher is feeling better. Yesterday, he took batting practice. His shoulder remains sore, but that's only from "doing a lot of exercise, being in the weight room and all that stuff," Flores said.

Provided all goes well with his recovery, Flores could return from the 15-day disabled list in a week or so. When Flores is ready, the Nationals hope that the catcher can begin a new rehabilitation project: helping to improve their pitching staff. Though Flores is just 24, he has an aptitude for pitch-calling and an ability to keep pitchers calm. With Flores behind the plate, Washington's pitchers have a collective 5.12 ERA. When either of Flores's backups are playing, the team ERA rises. Pitchers throwing to Wil Nieves have a 6.54 ERA this year; those throwing to Josh Bard have a 6.98 ERA.

Asked about the significance of those numbers, acting general manager Mike Rizzo said: "I put a lot of stock into it. The comfort level that a pitcher has with his catcher is not to be underestimated.

"He's our main game-caller, " Rizzo added. "He's one of our best, most potent bats in the lineup. He's a real offensive force, and he's a good everyday catcher. It's your everyday guy. . . . Yeah, we miss him a lot."

A Second Try at Crow?

Last year, the Nationals drafted pitcher Aaron Crow in the first round and failed to sign him. This year, the Nationals have some interest in re-selecting Crow with their No. 10 pick in the first round of the June 9 draft -- but in order to have that option, Crow must sign a re-consent form, which is the only way a player can be drafted more than once by the same team. Hoping for permission, Rizzo has spoken with Randy and Alan Hendricks, the team of agents that represents the pitcher.

"I've been in discussion with the Hendricks brothers about it," Rizzo said. "But he hasn't signed a consent form yet, no."

Playing Equal Parts

Josh Willingham, who is splitting outfield time with Austin Kearns, has started nine of the last 13 games. Kearns missed four of those games because of a minor hand injury, but even so, Willingham's recent form -- combined with Kearns's .190 May average -- is forcing an imbalance. Manager Manny Acta, though, reiterated that Willingham has not won a corner outfield job, and said he still intends to give the two equal playing time.

"Don't try to make a story out of it," Acta said, smiling. "We'll continue to get both guys playing time, and until one of those guys just takes off and makes me put him in the lineup every single day. You're dying to write that some guy has been benched and the other is taking his job."

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