- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Mitchell Page is a highly respected major league hitting coach. A host of his former students with the St. Louis Cardinals, All-Stars such as Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, swear by his teachings.

So when Page starts raving about one of his players, his opinion carries some weight. And these days, he can’t stop raving about one player: Cristian Guzman.

Yes, that Cristian Guzman.

“I look at the type of at-bats he’s having, and there’s nobody in camp having better at-bats,” the Washington Nationals’ hitting coach said. “I’m telling you right now, I don’t see a better hitter. I mean, every at-bat he has is a quality at-bat. If he carries it over to the season, he’s going to hit .290-plus and be an All-Star shortstop.”

Anyone who watched in horror two years ago as Guzman battled to get his average up to .219 by season’s end will have a hard time taking Page’s assessment seriously. But there has been some legitimate evidence this spring Guzman is at the very least a very improved player.

Having finally overcome the torn right shoulder that plagued him in 2005 and kept him sidelined for all of 2006, and seeing the ball better than ever thanks to laser eye surgery, Guzman is hitting the ball with authority. He entered last night’s exhibition game against the New York Mets with a .444 average, one homer and nine RBI in 13 games.

Spring training numbers don’t count, and this isn’t the first time Guzman has shown flashes of brilliance in Florida. In mid-March 2005, he was hitting .448 before going into an 0-for-23 tailspin that served as a precursor to his wretched regular season.

But the Nationals don’t believe this is a flash in the pan. Guzman might not hit .444 this season, but no one believes he’s going to hit .219 again.

“The way he’s been swinging the bat, it says a lot to me,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s swinging the bat, putting the fat part of the bat on the ball more consistently and showing better bat speed from both sides of the plate. Whether that laser surgery helped him or the fact he feels healthy now and his confidence is sky high, that’s probably the best assumption.”

For his part, Guzman says he hasn’t felt this comfortable and locked in since, “ooh, a long time ago.”

It’s certainly the best he has felt since signing a much-scrutinized, four-year, $16.8 million contract to come to Washington in 2005. He hasn’t exactly given the Nationals their money’s worth so far, and he knows it. Few outside observers expect him to turn things around at this point, and he knows it.

“I know everybody’s talking,” he said. “So I have to do something.”

Guzman showed up at camp reinvigorated and determined to put all his troubles behind him.

He was limited early on while easing his way back from the shoulder surgery and that might have given the impression to some he wasn’t working all that hard. Those who work directly with him, though, insist that’s not the case.

“One thing I love that he’s doing right now is that even though he’s got two more years on the contract, he’s playing the game harder than anyone else on the roster,” Page said. “He didn’t have to come in and play that hard. That shows you he has a lot of character. Right now, he’s like a rookie to me. That’s the way he’s playing the game, like a rookie. He’s not leaving anything out there.”

Guzman also has flashed something rarely seen around the Nationals’ clubhouse the last two years: A big smile.

He’s constantly laughing it up with his teammates, on and off the field. And it seems to safe to say this: For the first time since he came to Washington, Cristian Guzman is happy.

And if his hitting coach really is as wise as everyone says, he could be on the verge of proving his detractors wrong once and for all.

“That’s my point right now,” Guzman said. ” ‘05, I know was not my best year, and ‘06 I did not play any. So I want to show people. … I’m ready.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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