- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It was the final week of spring training, and Washington Nationals hitting coach Mitchell Page couldn’t stop raving about Cristian Guzman.

“There’s nobody in camp having better at-bats,” said Page, who has since taken a leave of absence while battling personal problems. “If he carries it over to the season, he’s going to hit .290-plus and be an All-Star shortstop.”

Turns out Page was wrong that day in Viera, Fla.

He undersold Guzman by more than 50 batting average points.

When the Nationals’ formerly beleaguered shortstop steps to the plate tonight in Baltimore and looks up at his stat line on the Camden Yards scoreboard, he will see a .346 average next to his name.

Talk of an All-Star berth? It’s probably too soon for that, but it’s certainly not out of the question.

In perhaps baseball’s best feel-good story of the year, Guzman has gone from the poster child for bad free agent signings to a beacon of hope for all those players who have endured difficult times.

“I’m rooting for him,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said.

Bowden, of course, has good reason to root for Guzman. He’s the one who lured the then 26-year-old away from Minnesota in November 2004 with a four-year, $16.8 million deal that from the beginning was derided around the sport as excessive. The deal only got worse over the next two seasons, first when Guzman needed a late surge in 2005 just to get his batting average up to a paltry .219, then when he missed all of 2006 with a torn labrum.

Guzman never revealed it at the time, but his shoulder was killing him long before he arrived in the District. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he believes his ex-shortstop first hurt himself diving headfirst into a base in a game against Detroit several years ago.

“There’s no doubt that he had an injury in his arm and he played through it,” Gardenhire said over the weekend during the Nationals’ series at the Metrodome.

Guzman now admits the shoulder injury plagued him immensely in 2005 and was the primary reason for his abysmal production at the plate and in the field.

“When you’re hurt, you’re not the same player,” he said. “You’re not playing like you’re supposed to play.”

When the shoulder tear prevented him from making even simple throws in spring training 2006, Guzman finally relented. He had major surgery, missed the entire season and then set out again to prove everyone wrong.

He appeared to be on the right track during an impressive spring that had Page and others convinced he was on the verge of a breakthrough. But when he strained his hamstring Opening Day and immediately went on the disabled list, it again looked like he was destined for disappointment.

Through it all, Guzman often sulked. He turned reticent, regularly blew off reporters who wanted to interview him and didn’t talk much with his teammates. An outsider might have gotten the impression he simply didn’t care.

“That’s not right,” Gardenhire said. “Guzie’s always cared about the game. He played through injuries here and did everything he could. That’s the one thing I never, ever worried about with Guzie. He wanted to play every day.”

His hamstring finally healed, his shoulder good to go, Guzman returned to the Washington lineup May 7 in Milwaukee. He went through some ups and down during his first few weeks back, but beginning May 30 he embarked on a hot streak the likes of which are rarely seen on the big league level.

He has played 11 games since then and recorded multiple hits in eight of them. His batting average over that span is an even .500 (20-for-40). His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) is an astronomical 1.187.

“I’m not trying to do too much,” he said. “I just see the ball and turn the bat.”

It all sounds so simple, but it certainly didn’t come easy. After two seasons hearing nothing but negative things said about him, Guzman could have collapsed mentally.

But Nationals manager Manny Acta made sure his shortstop knew how the club still believed in him. From the day he accepted the job, Acta told Guzman he would be the club’s starting shortstop, and his fellow Dominican hasn’t let him down.

“I think the confidence we have given him had to help,” Acta said. “That being said, he deserves the credit. He went and worked hard and lived up to the expectations we had of him.”

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