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.
"When you start seeing the sunny days, when you start thinking positive, you're going to get out there," Flores said.
The first signs of progress came last fall. He played in the Florida Instructional League, usually the domain of teenagers and first-time professionals. When he came to the plate, he felts nerves rush through him. Months earlier, he could not swing a bat. In his first at-bat since surgery, Flores launched a home run. It is a moment he will never forget.
After the Instructional League success, Flores's confidence surged. He played winter ball in Venezuela, his home country, and hit .322 with two home runs in 87 at-bats. He threw to every base without pain or a second thought.
"I gave 120 percent, and my body reacted really, really well," Flores said. "I feel like a new player."
Despite his progress, Flores is not guaranteed a spot. The Nationals also have Ivan Rodriguez and Wilson Ramos behind the plate, and top prospect Derek Norris is also a catcher. Depending on how the spring plays out, Flores could find himself either playing at Class AAA Syracuse or included in a trade.
"Right now, I'm not thinking about that," Flores said. "I'm just thinking to keep healthy and show the team that I'm ready to be here. I know Pudge and Ramos, they're good players, good catchers. But I'm not afraid of anything. Baseball is baseball. You need to go out there every day, give your best, and let everything happen."
Before the foul tip, the surgery and the setbacks, Flores never would have had to worry about his place on the Nationals. But he believes he came through the adversity not only the same player as before, but something more.
"I think even better," Flores said. "Because I feel like nothing else can scare me any more than being in surgery or recovering. A lot of frustration, a lot of bad moments make you a strong player.
"You keep your mind strong and positive, you see the results. For me, it's being here."