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Nationals' Jesus Flores battles shoulder injury that continues to linger

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; D01

VIERA, FLA. -- First the shoulder was bruised, and then it was fractured, and then later still it was completely and utterly busted. Then the shoulder was surgically repaired, and then rested, and then tested and strengthened. All of this happened during the previous 289 days, a span in which Jesús Flores, once the Washington Nationals catcher of the future, learned how one lousy body part can disrupt a career.

Sometimes, these days, Flores wishes his shoulder belonged to somebody else, because none of his talents matter until he can throw again. Monday morning, the second day of formal workouts for Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers, Flores joined four other catchers in a bullpen practice area, where the mounds and plates run side by side. Five pitchers kicked the dirt and started working, and that's how it began -- a harmony of baseballs zipping back and forth, brisk but easy.

Except for one thing: Flores looked nothing like the other catchers. A middle-aged bullpen catcher, Julian Martinez, stood to Flores's right, as if looking to hold his hand. Flores gloved every pitch from right-hander Shairon Martis, his first partner in the bullpen, but he didn't throw a single ball back. Instead, he underhanded the ball to Martinez, who relayed it back to Martis. One member of Washington's front office called the scene "sad." Flores, for his part, said he's starting his career "from zero."

Only a year ago, Flores looked like one of Washington's most promising position players -- a catcher who could hit for power, deliver in the clutch, and perhaps, hold down a demanding position for a decade. At the team's first pitcher-catcher bullpen session in 2009, the Nationals paired Flores with prospect Jordan Zimmermann, because the organization thought the pair could grow old together.

Now, the Nationals don't know what to think. They know Flores can throw 45 or 50 feet, and they hope he can throw 60 by the end of the week, but they don't dare say he'll be ready by Opening Day. In fact, they don't mention a timetable of any kind. ("We'll be very cautious," General Manager Mike Rizzo said.) They believe he's a slow healer, and they can't predict whether the months of injuries have eroded his ability. This offseason, they signed free agent Iván Rodríguez and avoided arbitration with backup Wil Nieves. The Nationals want Flores, but no longer depend on him.

Flores keeps thinking, with some regret and bitterness, about all the reasons he's not 100 percent. The last day he felt healthy? That was May 9, a night when the Nationals played in Arizona. In the seventh inning, a Chris Young foul tip struck him in the right shoulder. Because of adrenaline, Flores didn't immediately feel much pain. He only exited the game in the middle of the ninth. X-rays taken later that night were negative. Washington thought he'd miss a game or two.

From there, the prognosis for Flores worsened. In late May, Flores resumed throwing. He attempted a rehab trip to the minor leagues. He batted 11 times. His shoulder pain worsened, and his next examination revealed setback No. 1. A stress fracture. Rizzo called the news "devastating." Flores missed another four months. Only in early September did Washington bring Flores back for a last gasp of action, adding him directly to the big league roster on Sept. 4, strictly as a pinch hitter. He batted three times. He complained of more shoulder pain. His next examination revealed setback No. 2. A torn labrum. Orthopedist James Andrews conducted SLAP (superior labrum from anterior to posterior) repair surgery on Sept. 16. And Flores was devastated.

Asked this week if he thinks the labrum injury was preventable, Flores said, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. If I would have stopped throwing."

Flores questioned why the Nationals, headed by team doctor Wiemi Douoguih, failed to initially detect the labrum injury.

"Stupid," he said. "You're the doctor. You tell me one thing, and it was labrum. . . . I was getting worse every day; I wasn't getting better. And I was telling them, 'Hey, I'm not feeling good. Something is in there, something is in there.' And they kept saying, 'Don't worry; don't worry, you're gonna be fine. It's tendinitis, it's tendinitis.' Then they send me to Dr. Andrews. He wanted to see the MRI [exams], X-rays, everything, instead of just moving your arm around."

The Nationals, told of Flores's sentiments, allowed Rizzo to speak on behalf of the team's medical treatment staff. Rizzo said he understood Flores's frustration, but emphasized that the team never put him under undo risk. "We've handled Jesús's case with extreme caution," he said. "He's one of our best and brightest prospects, so we went to great pains to do our due diligence to tackle the problems that he had. It was just an escalation of problems, one after the other. But we certainly were following the correct protocol."

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