- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

SAN DIEGO — Cristian Guzman’s 2005 season undoubtedly will go down as a colossal disappointment. It’s too late to change that.

But it’s not too late for the Washington Nationals’ beleaguered shortstop to make a difference down the stretch in a wild-card race. And if he can turn his two-week hot streak into a full September to remember, he might yet prove valuable to this club.

After struggling all season to simply raise his batting average above the Mendoza line, Guzman suddenly has found his stroke. His 2-for-4, three-RBI performance Friday night in the Nationals’ 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres raised his average to a robust .207 (OK, robust being a relative term).

Since the second game of an Aug.31 doubleheader in Atlanta, Guzman is hitting .341 (14-for-41).

“He’s just doing the things that we thought he had to do,” manager Frank Robinson said of the career .266 hitter who signed a four-year, $16.8million deal with the Nationals last winter. “He’s doing the things he did in spring training and he’s done in batting practice. Now he’s taking it to the game. Has he got it completely down? No. But he’s certainly got it down to the extent that he’s a tough out.”

The last two days alone have been something of a breakthrough for Guzman. He homered in Thursday’s 6-5 win over the Mets in New York, then provided two clutch hits in Friday’s victory. With two outs and two on in the fifth inning, he doubled to center field off Padres ace Jake Peavy to give Washington a 2-1 lead it never relinquished. In the ninth, he drove in an insurance run with a triple to right-center.

“I’ve been working the whole year,” Guzman said. “Now something’s happening.”

The bulk of that work has been under the direction of Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw, who has been preaching a simple approach to Guzman all season.

“Hit the fastball,” McCraw said. “It’s not rocket science. If he keeps hitting fastballs and lays off the other stuff, he’ll do well. It really is that simple.”

It’s just been difficult to get Guzman to practice what McCraw preaches. Too many times, he frustrates coaches and fans alike as he takes a first-pitch fastball for a strike and then flails away at breaking balls out of the zone.

“It’s not an easy situation,” Guzman said. “When you’re struggling all year, everything goes on you. When you’re struggling, you have to work and work and work.”

So why has it taken so long for him to finally get it?

“If I knew, I’d have gotten him to change it three months ago,” McCraw said. “It’s not the first time he’s heard it. I’m glad it’s happening now. It makes us a more formidable ballclub.”

Without a doubt. Robinson no longer has a guaranteed out in the No.8 hole of the lineup. And if Guzman can come through only a handful of times down the stretch in clutch situations, he just might convert all those non-believers who gave up on him so long ago.

For what it’s worth, Guzman insists he has believed in himself throughout this miserable season.

“Always,” he said. “Always.”

Notes — Before last night’s game, the Nationals placed pitcher Tony Armas Jr. on the 60-day disabled list with right shoulder irritation and activated second baseman Junior Spivey (fractured forearm) off the 60-day DL. Armas, who doctors say has suffered wear and tear from the 2003 surgery on his shoulder, already had been shut down and wasn’t expected to pitch again this year. A free agent at the end of the season, he’s not expected to be re-signed. Spivey, meanwhile, could help out as another late-inning pinch-runner or defensive replacement. He hurt himself July 9 in a freak accident, when he hit a ball off a batting tee and had it ricochet off his arm. …

Infielder Jamey Carroll wasn’t expected to play last night after spraining his right ankle in the ninth inning of Friday’s game. Carroll, who hurt himself making a nice play on Dave Roberts’ grounder up the middle, was hobbling around with his ankle wrapped up tight yesterday but said it looks worse than it feels. “It didn’t swell up that bad,” he said. “By no means [is it a long-term injury]. I’m walking around fine.” With Jose Vidro back at second base but still hampered by a bad knee, Robinson was using Carroll as a late-inning defensive replacement. …

Unlike Guzman, right fielder Jose Guillen is slumping in September. He entered last night’s game hitting just .159 (7-for-44) this month with five RBI in 14 games. Robinson and McCraw have been trying to get Guillen to reduce the hitch in his swing because he’s unable to catch up with inside fastballs. “Mechanically, he’s doing a lot of things wrong,” Robinson said. “He’s just not doing what he has to do to be a successful hitter.” …

Reliever Luis Ayala (out with a bone spur in his right elbow) was scheduled to throw a bullpen session yesterday. The Nationals still aren’t expecting him to contribute down the stretch, though, and have filled his usual set-up role with Gary Majewski, Travis Hughes and Jason Bergmann.

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