- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

During those dark days in the summer of 2005, when Cristian Guzman’s batting average was hovering around .190 and the boos at RFK Stadium were becoming more forceful, it was easy to believe the Washington Nationals had made a colossal blunder.

Four years and $16.8 million for this?

Those numbers - the batting average and the contract value - forever will be attached to Guzman’s name. They are the first two things most fans associate with the Nationals shortstop, and they presented him with the biggest challenge of his professional life.

But those who know him best believe Guzman is better for it. If not for his struggles then, he might not find himself Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, representing Washington in the All-Star Game.

“I think he matured because he went through the booing and we gave him all this money and he didn’t perform and he was always hurt,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “Overcoming all of that, two surgeries, going from [artificial] turf to grass and overcoming the slow start here to being an All-Star? It’s a great story.”

Indeed, there will be few players introduced before Tuesday’s game who can outdo Guzman’s story of perseverance and redemption. Three years ago, the debate was whether he was one of the worst offensive players in baseball history. At the break he leads the National League in hits.

“I feel happy,” he said last week upon learning he had been named an All-Star. “What can I say? I feel great. I’m going to New York.”

That’s about as deep and philosophical at the soft-spoken Guzman is going to get. Never one to seek the limelight, the native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has been playing baseball in the United States for a dozen years now yet still isn’t comfortable conducting large interviews in English.

He has been Washington’s starting shortstop for 3 1/2 years, but even the club’s most ardent fans probably feel like they don’t really know the 30-year-old.

Guzman’s teammates and coaches know that beneath the quiet exterior lies a determined competitor and influential clubhouse presence.

“I feel like people think he doesn’t have any personality,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But he’s one of the leaders on this team. He doesn’t enjoy losing, and he doesn’t let these guys enjoy losing. And I think that’s a side people don’t see.”

It was perhaps difficult for Guzman to show that fire during his first three seasons in the District because few people will pay attention to a .190-hitter who can’t keep himself healthy. As if his dismal 2005 - his .574 OPS (on-base plus slugging) that year was nearly half that of Albert Pujols’ 1.039 mark - wasn’t embarrassing enough, he missed all of 2006 after shoulder surgery.

“It hurt him,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s human. You don’t want to be booed. You don’t want to be made fun of. But he’s a very low-key guy who keeps a lot of things to himself and does a very good job of not letting people know how he feels.”

In hindsight, it was a combination of that bum shoulder (an injury that most believe dated back to 2004 with the Minnesota Twins) and poor vision that led to Guzman’s staggeringly poor debut season with the Nationals. He had laser surgery to correct the vision problem before 2006, and once his shoulder was fixed, he returned strong last year to hit .329 in 43 games and erase all those negative connotations that surrounded him. Until …

If there truly has been a low point in Guzman’s Washington career, it came on June 24, 2007, when his hopes of a dramatic comeback season were dashed when he tagged Cleveland’s Josh Barfield hard on the helmet and tore ligaments in his left thumb.

Guzman had surgery the next day, effectively ending his season. (He appeared in three games in late September, getting only one at-bat.) And he was crushed by the development, even going so far as to try to convince Acta he could play on without the surgery.

“He came back and had that year and was able to kind of say: ‘I told you so,’” Zimmerman said. “And then to get a freak accident like that, it was not easy to watch.”

“He got shortchanged,” Acta said.

With all that bad luck weighing on him, Guzman returned to spring training this season, determined to overcome his struggles and prove he was a better player than Washington had seen for three years.

He wasted no time fulfilling his desire. With eight hits in his first 20 at-bats to start the season, Guzman made an emphatic statement. His .313 average leads the Nationals. His 126 hits lead the NL at the All-Star break, and he’s the first Washington-based player to hold that distinction since Heinie Manush in 1934.

What impresses team officials more than the number of hits is Guzman’s sudden ability to drive the ball with authority. A slap hitter who took advantage of the artificial turf at Minnesota’s Metrodome for years, he now looks to make square contact and is on pace for 44 doubles (his career high is 31).

As much as the laser surgery has been credited for Guzman’s success, Bowden believes this new approach to hitting has played a huge role.

“His swing is completely different than when we acquired him,” Bowden said. “He’s now adjusted to grass. He doesn’t slap it. He swings the freaking bat and squares the ball more than anybody on our team.”

And some with the Nationals believe he hasn’t even reached his full potential. Acta sees an overaggressive hitter who could be hitting .350 with a bit more patience at the plate.

Not that anyone’s complaining about Guzman in his current shape and form. It was once assumed that the Nationals couldn’t wait for his contract to expire at the end of this season and move on in search of another shortstop. But Guzman’s renaissance, coupled with a lack of viable alternatives both on the free agent market and within the organization, leaves Washington seeking to re-sign him for 2009 and beyond.

Guzman’s desire is to remain with Washington. He owns a house in the area, and his wife and kids spend the season in the area.

“I want to stay,” he said.

Negotiations remain in their infancy right now, and Guzman’s value only has gone up since getting the All-Star nod. But the Nationals understand how important he has become to their organization.

Few would have said it three years ago as the boos rained down from the RFK stands, but Cristian Guzman has become an indispensable member of the Nationals’ clubhouse.

“We all went through pain,” Bowden said. “It wasn’t an easy four years. But it’s nice that the last year of it is the best year.”

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