- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | To know how remarkable it is that Cristian Guzman’s spring has consisted of few questions, turning points or votes of confidence, it’s only necessary to look back 12 months.

That was when Guzman was one of three veteran infielders fighting for two spots, not the singular, silent mentor to two neophytes - when Guzman’s health was an unknown, not a given. It was before the All-Star season, the new contract and the departure of the one-time All-Star the Nationals had acquired as an insurance policy for Guzman, all within the span of three weeks.

All the clutter has faded from the corners of the picture, and it’s just Guzman left, taking grounders at shortstop every day without reason to worry about his future.

“I come here to play,” Guzman said. “That’s all I feel.”

There’s not much else to think about. Heading into his fifth season with the Nationals, Guzman is as much a fixture on the left side of Washington’s infield as Ryan Zimmerman. And though that’s not likely to be the case for as long as it is with the third baseman, it also wasn’t expected to be the case at all last year.

Guzman was coming off three years filled with injuries and disappointing results. Given a four-year, $16 million deal as then-general manager Jim Bowden’s first free agent signing in 2005, Guzman was booed routinely that year as he limped to a .219 average. Then he missed all of 2006 with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and saw his 2007 season end with a torn thumb ligament, cutting short a year when he was hitting .328 and finally starting to justify his contract.

There was some question at the beginning of last season whether the Nationals’ middle infield would feature Felipe Lopez and Ronnie Belliard, not Guzman. But Guzman came to camp stinging the ball, finally fully healthy and feeling the benefits of the Lasik surgery he had before the 2006 season. He never really stopped.

Last year could go down as the best of Guzman’s career - he hit .316 (a career high for a full season), slugged nine homers (tied for the second-best mark of his career) and drove in 55 runs (the second most of his career). He made his second All-Star Game, playing six innings at third base in the American League’s 15-inning win. The Nationals rewarded him with a two-year, $16 million deal in July, ending the question of whether they would keep Guzman, a debate further deadened when they released Lopez on Aug. 1.

They also locked in the next two years for the shortstop at a much higher rate than he probably would have gotten on the open market.

In the wake of the cratering economy, former Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudson - who is a year older than Guzman but has better career numbers and is more highly regarded defensively - got a one-year, $3.8 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that was after waiting a week into spring training to sign.

It all lined up perfectly for Guzman, who has morphed into something of an example for Anderson Hernandez and Alberto Gonzalez, the two players competing with Belliard for the second base job.

“The way he goes about his business, it’s not surprising he was in Minnesota before he came here,” said new third base coach Pat Listach, who’s coaching the Nationals’ infielders. “That’s the way they do things in Minnesota, and that’s the way we’re going to do them here.”

Guzman still isn’t the type to speak his mind much, partially because he says he knows young players don’t always respond to extra advice from veterans.

But his command of routine is something both Listach and manager Manny Acta can use to teach their young infielders.

“He’s very quiet. That’s the only thing is that if you’re going to learn from him, you’ve got to be watching him,” Acta said. “Very few times is he going to go out of his way to tell people how to act or how to do things, and I don’t think at this stage of his career he’s going to change. But there’s nothing wrong with leading by example.”

Especially when it was difficult to envision a scenario in which Guzman was still here, leading at all.

“Since he’s been healthy here, he’s been the ultimate pro,” Acta said. “He doesn’t act with any arrogance because of his time or his salary or what he’s done in the past. I’ve really enjoyed Cristian since he’s been healthy here. He’s been tremendous for us.”

Tigers 3, Nationals 0

Despite a less-than-stellar performance from Collin Balester (who walked the bases loaded in the third inning), the Nationals kept the game scoreless until the sixth, when Detroit scored two off Gustavo Chacin.

Washington managed just seven hits off six Tigers pitchers and gave up an unearned run in the ninth when Wil Ledezma overthrew first base on a sacrifice bunt.

Hernandez led the Nationals with two hits.

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