Jesus Flores returns from shoulder issues as Washington Nationals open spring training
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
IN VIERA, FLA. At this time last year, Jesus Flores began a hellish season with a sad act. He crouched behind home plate in the bullpen and received pitches from Washington Nationals teammates. Rather than throwing back to the mound, Flores flipped the ball to someone else, a by-product of the battered, surgically repaired right shoulder that just wouldn't heal.
Flores remembers those moments well. He laughs about them now, and the memories make him grateful for his current status. On Monday morning, Flores caught pitch after pitch, making easy throw after easy throw back to the pitcher as if it was second nature, like it had always been before.
"My shoulder," Flores said, "is finally healthy."
When the Nationals officially open their spring training Tuesday as pitchers and catchers report, Flores will represent perhaps the happiest development of their winter. He did not play at all in 2010 following labrum surgery, and he sometimes feared for his career. After a year stuffed with setbacks, frustration and a creeping doubt he may never again set foot on a major league diamond, Flores has returned.
"It's a new year for me," Flores said Monday morning after working out. "I feel 100 percent, physically, mentally. It is a big thing for me. God and baseball has given me another opportunity to come back, and I feel glad for it. The last couple of years have been really hard for me, but I don't want to think about that. It is in the past, and like I said, it's a new year for me."
Flores has shoved aside his past, but any story about him must start there. In 2008, at 23, he became the Nationals' everyday catcher and a crucial piece of their foundation. In 2009, he posted a .905 OPS in 26 games. He was a 24-year-old catcher who could hit, a potential breakout star.
On May 9, 2009, in the seventh inning of a game in Arizona, a foul tip struck Flores's right shoulder. He stayed in the game until the ninth inning. The Nationals assumed he would miss a game, maybe two.
But Flores did not start throwing again until late May. When he experienced pain during a minor league rehab assignment, the Nationals discovered he had a stress fracture. He didn't play again until late September, when he appeared three times as a pinch hitter. Something was still not right. He received more tests, and those revealed a torn labrum, one of the least merciful sentences a baseball player can receive.
Flores underwent surgery, and after the winter the Nationals hoped he could be ready for opening day. But each time he made progress, Flores suffered a setback. The team sent him to specialist James Andrews. It became clear he would not be ready for opening day, and it became a question of if, not when, he would return to the majors.
As Flores rehabbed in Florida, he sometimes thought, "Oh my God, what's going to happen. What's going on?"
"When you're in the middle of that storm, you start thinking about everything," Flores said. "A lot of things come through your head, a lot of negative stuff."
During the bleakest moments, Flores reminded himself of his goals. He wanted to be an all-star. He wanted to play in the major leagues for many, many years. He made himself stop thinking about the worst.