For Guzman, the Mean Season

Cristian Guzman's offensive numbers are flirting with historical lows, making him the subject of fans' disdain and seemingly affecting his normally reliable defense.
Cristian Guzman's offensive numbers are flirting with historical lows, making him the subject of fans' disdain and seemingly affecting his normally reliable defense. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

In this summer when baseball came back, when grateful arms wrapped themselves around every Washington National from Nick Johnson to Chad Cordero and each first was treated with the reverence of a papal visit, there has now come a different kind of first: the first player Nats fans love to hate.

It has gotten to be too much with Cristian Guzman. The strikeouts, the popups, the meek ground balls to second base.

And the disdain manifests itself in true Washington style, not with boos in the ballpark -- although those are starting to come -- but in a more passive-aggressive form with sniping on talk shows and Internet chat rooms and in the silent protest of people like Dennis Walsh, a part owner of a Bethesda bar who will not buy any more Nationals tickets until the team benches its regular shortstop.

The franchise's biggest offseason free agent signing -- $16.8 million -- has become its biggest impediment: too expensive to dump but so offensively inept that the Nationals almost seem to be conceding outs when they write his name on the lineup card.

What to do with Cristian Guzman?

The topic has filled more than a few organizational meetings, flummoxed Manager Frank Robinson and frustrated hitting coach Tom McCraw. They have tried everything, hitting him first, second, seventh, eighth and even ninth in interleague games in American League ballparks. All to little avail. Still, they keep playing him and hope he comes alive.

"Of course I feel for him," Robinson said one day last month just after announcing he was going to bench Guzman for a few days, hoping -- futilely, it turned out -- that this would clear his head. "I know he's a better offensive player than he's shown. You don't hit .274 a couple of times and all of a sudden he changes leagues and you don't hit? There's an adjustment period. You do eventually have to adjust."

A couple of hours earlier, Robinson called Guzman into his office to talk about the benching. He brought along bench coach Eddie Rodriguez, a Spanish speaker, to translate in case Guzman did not understand. They talked about Guzman's approach to hitting, how he needed to work on his swing and take more batting practice. The manager also thanked Guzman for playing good defense the first half of the year and not letting the season-long slump get in the way. Guzman smiled and said he understood.

"I know the offense has bothered him, he's sensitive to that," Robinson said that day. "You hear it from the fans and the radio and the press. It starts to wear on you. He comes to the ballpark every day with his head up and it's helped us have a hell of a first half. And he made some terrific plays."

The benching didn't help. In fact, Guzman got worse. He practiced all the things Robinson and McCraw told him while standing in the batting cage, then forgot them when he went to hit in the games. Then his defense fell apart. It started with little things: a missed ground ball that seemed to be something he could reach, a wild throw to second on a double play attempt. But the mistakes got bigger -- and costlier.

There was the throw from catcher Brian Schneider that he dropped two weeks ago in Atlanta, allowing Chipper Jones to steal second and eventually score the winning run. Then there was the play Guzman botched in the ninth inning on Friday that led to the winning run in yet another Washington defeat.

Privately, some in the organization say that Guzman is bothered by the fact that Robinson sometimes sits him in favor of Jamey Carroll or pinch-hits for him late in games. This, they say, has affected his defense, which concerns the people in charge and might prompt a quicker change. But what change? For now Carroll has to play second until Jose Vidro's sore quadriceps muscle is better. Maybe the Nationals could make a waiver deal in September to pick up a shortstop that somebody else doesn't want. There is even talk that the new owner might have to eat the remaining three years on Guzman's contract and simply cut him over the winter. But for now, there is little choice but to write Guzman's name in the lineup.

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