The Washington Times - September 30, 2012, 09:45AM

ST. LOUIS — When Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo shipped another one of the organizations’ young catching prospects to Oakland this past August, he spoke of the man he was getting back as someone having an uncharacteristically down offensive season.

Kurt Suzuki, known as a strong defensive catcher who is good working with pitchers, was having a career-worst season at the plate. He was hitting .218 the day the Nationals traded for him.

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His offensive rejuvenation since coming to Washington has been one of the biggest pluses for the Nationals down the stretch. Suzuki, their No. 8 hitter, has hit .271 with five home runs and 25 RBI since coming over here — and .322 with 20 RBI, three home runs and two doubles in the last 27 games. 

What’s more, Suzuki has come through in big spots for the Nationals, and none bigger than Saturday night when he laced a two-run double to left center field in the 10th inning and helped the Nationals shave their magic number to clinch the NL East down to one.

“I think we all knew he was a better hitter, and his track record shows he was a better hitter, than what he was doing this year,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “Obviously defensively he’s been unbelievable the way he’s been with the pitchers, but he’s got a lot of clutch hits since he’s been here.

“He’s been huge. That’s kind of an under-the-radar acquisition compared to other teams and what they got but he’s been huge for us.”

Suzuki’s ability gives the Nationals yet another weapon in an already long lineup. The No. 1 hitter through the No. 8 hitter in their order is capable of hitting the ball out of the ballpark (and occasionally the No. 9 hitter is too) and that lengthens the areas of danger for opposing pitchers. 

“He’s added a pretty good spark,” said Jordan Zimmermann.

When the Cardinals opted to walk the switch-hitting Danny Espinosa against Fernando Salas Saturday night, perhaps his past series’ against the Cardinals and his own history against Salas (2-for-4 with a home run and a triple) fresh in Mike Matheny’s mind, Suzuki felt his adrenaline surge. 

“I was excited that they walked Espinosa,” Suzuki said. “That kind of lights a fire under you a little bit. Not that you don’t go up there with a fire under you anyway, but especially in that situation, they want to pitch to you. So you want to go up there and make them pay.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been riding Suzuki hard the past few weeks. The catcher has started eight straight games entering Sunday’s possible NL East clincher and 16 of the Nationals’ last 19 games. But that grind will be worth it as soon as the Nationals reach the point they’ve been working toward.

“The last couple weeks, I ain’t gonna lie, it’s tough games,” Suzuki said. “To get that much closer, just take it day by day. But we know we’re getting that much closer, so it’s definitely nice.”