One of the harsh realities of athletics is that the injured are pushed aside. The drumbeat of the schedule leaves little time to lament sidelined players.
For every disabled starter from high school to the pros, an understudy benefits from a next-person-up philosophy. When one door closes, another opens. Washington Nationals catcher Jesus Flores has seen it from both perspectives.
The ballclub’s former and current top player at his position, Flores rose to the top of the depth chart in May after Wilson Ramos suffered a season-ending knee injury that will require at least two surgeries to repair.
In November, Ramos, a fast-rising standout on a team full of them, was kidnapped at gunpoint in his native Venezuela. Rescued unharmed after two harrowing-beyond-belief days, Ramos put the staggering incident behind him — only to be knocked out by his own body.
Flores had hoped to win back the job (he lost it while sitting out most of the 2009 season and all of 2010 because of a shoulder injury) through competition. He would rather not have benefited from his countryman’s misfortune (their home towns in Venezuela are just 325 miles apart), especially after Ramos’s kidnapping nightmare.
It would be understandable (appropriate?) for an athlete to feel a degree of guilt about experiencing good fortune at the expense of a teammate’s pain. It’s clearly a less-than-ideal situation, though one as common as the sight of a catcher crouching.
“I feel sorry for everything that happened to him,” Flores said of Ramos on Tuesday night before the Nationals began a three-game series against the New York Mets. “I know it’s sad because he’s such a good player. But that’s baseball sometimes.”
It’s also football, basketball, hockey, soccer — just pick any team sport. Whether a team maintains a high level of play often depends on the talent of its backups, and the Nationals have benefited from having Flores in reserve.
Behind the plate and at it, Flores has made a smooth transition to being a No. 1 catcher again. Changing primary receivers hasn’t bothered the major leagues’ best pitching staff, which has played the biggest role in the Nationals maintaining their lead in the better-than-expected National League East.
Nationals pitchers view Flores as “a guy who you can rely on the whole game,” said perpetually upbeat left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who is off to a start worthy of Cy Young Award consideration in his first season with the club.
“He’s the lead guy now and he really has taken over the rotation. He knows what he wants to do out there. You might shake him off once all game out of all of the pitches you throw. He mixes it up, wants you to attack the strike zone, and he really has helped out a lot with all of the success I’ve been having.”
Defensively, Flores has done a textbook job of blocking balls in the dirt (“He actually does that better than Ramos,” Manager Davey Johnson said). He has also has been more efficient against runners attempting to steal: Flores has thrown out 27 percent; Ramos was at 17 percent when he was knocked out for the season.
With Flores part of the everyday lineup, there hasn’t been an appreciable decrease in offensive production from the catcher’s spot: Their statistics are similar through about the same number of plate appearances this season.
Flores’s solid all-around production hasn’t surprised the Nationals “because he was the starting catcher here once,” right-hander Edwin Jackson said. “It’s not like it’s something he’s unfamiliar with. Before he got hurt, he was the man, and that’s not something you forget. He’s a smart dude, man. He’s an everyday catcher.”
Johnson always thought Flores could be a good one. During his time as a Nationals consultant, Johnson strongly recommended trading for Flores when he was just starting out in the Mets’ farm system.
“You could see he was a good receiver, he had a cannon arm and good bat-potential,” Johnson said. “As a manager, you’re looking for guys like that.”
The Nationals selected Flores from the Mets in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, in which teams chose from a pool of minor leaguers left unprotected by other organizations. At only 23, he was considered a high-ceiling starter in the majors. Then he suffered derailing injuries in 2009 that began after a ball caromed off his shoulder and fractured a bone (“I get a foul tip and it was almost the ending of my career,” Flores said), which eventually led to labrum surgery and a long road back. Now 27, Flores wondered whether he would be relegated to a backup’s life for the remainder of his career. It was a good question.
Ramos, 24, has more hitting potential than Flores, Nationals observers say. Last season, Ramos’s first full season with the club, he displayed the type of can’t-miss ability that left Johnson and General Manager Mike Rizzo feeling very secure about the position.
Not surprisingly, Flores wondered about his future each time Ramos delivered a clutch hit or made a dazzling defensive play. “I was the No. 1 catcher for this organization,” Flores said. “And then it was kind of like my chance just went away.”
Flores didn’t hide his frustration. He wanted to play much more than he did last season. But even by late in the season, Flores still hadn’t fully recovered from the rehabilitation process.
“He was still short [not fully recovered]. You could see it,” Johnson said. “But then he went to winter ball and tore it up. Then he had a great spring for me.
“I always looked at him as a No. 1 catcher, so I thought he could do this. Don’t get me wrong, now. Losing Ramos was a huge blow. It’s just good we’ve got another guy who can also do it.”
Flores was eager for the opportunity. He’ll at least have the rest of the season to make the most of it.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.