Not Your Average Turnaround

Cristian Guzman
Cristian Guzman has lifted his average to .346 and has reached base and hit .500 in his last 11 games. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS -- The bottom had long before fallen out on Cristian Guzman, and had he returned to the Dominican Republic last year, sunk into a couch and drowned himself in misery, he could have quietly drifted into oblivion with $16.8 million in the bank. There are worse fates; he would never have had to return to Washington, never have been forced to relive his humiliating 2005 season with the Nationals, never been required to think about the number next to his name: .219.

"But I work," Guzman said. "I work and work and work."

There is no accounting for how Guzman is hitting now, no reason to expect it will continue the entire season. His weekend in Minnesota, where he played the first six years of his career and went 8 for 14 as the Nationals took two of three from the Twins, lifted his average to .346. He has reached base in his last 11 games, a span in which he is hitting .500 (24 for 48). It would appear to be an unprecedented hot streak from a rejuvenated player.

"Nah," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "I've seen this before."

The fans of Washington have not, so this torrid stretch from Guzman is a significant bonus. To find out how this happened, though, think back past the 2006 season Guzman lost to shoulder surgery, past the 2005 season in which he did not climb above .200 for good until Sept. 8.

Instead, think back to the first adjustments Guzman ever had to make, coming over as a naive teenager from the Dominican and playing in places like Greensboro, N.C., and New Britain, Conn.

"It's hard when you come to the States," Guzman said. "I didn't speak no English. Nothing. I had no family around here. It's real hard."

When Guzman isn't comfortable, he isn't outgoing. Hunter noticed that in 1998, when the two were teammates at Class AA New Britain. Guzman didn't know how to order food for himself, so Hunter did it for him. Even into his rookie year of 1999, when he lived with teammate LaTroy Hawkins, dinner on the fly might be a run to a convenience store for a few beers and a bag of Doritos.

"He had that 'Spanglish' going early on, but I could understand him," Hunter said. "That meant I was able to understand him as a person. So now, I have a whole deep conversation with 'Guzzy,' because that's my guy. He was like my little brother."

Even now, for many Nationals, it's hard to imagine such a relationship with Guzman, who generally plays cards with the bullpen catchers and batting practice pitchers before games. "He doesn't let much out," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.

And what he didn't let out early on in his career might have hurt his development. In 2001, as a 23-year-old, he hit .308 with 13 triples and seven homers in the first half of the season. He became an all-star. Yes, he was a free swinger who didn't walk enough, and yes, he had mental lapses in the field. Still, he appeared to be a rising star, the latest in a long line of Dominican shortstops who could throw out any runner from any spot.

"When he first got here, his arm was different," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I mean, he had a cannon when he first came up."

Yet when Guzman returned from the All-Star Game, Gardenhire and the Twins coaching staff noticed his throws weren't as sharp. They traced it back to a dive into first base, a play in which he jammed his right shoulder. He missed a month.

"A lot of times, when you hurt your arm like that, separate your shoulder or whatever it was, it never comes back the same," Gardenhire said.

So Guzman played with what, ultimately, was a different shoulder, and he became a different player. No longer could he make the play in the hole without planting his feet. After that all-star season of 2001, he never again hit better than .274.

Still, with the Nationals moving to Washington from Montreal in the fall of 2004, General Manager Jim Bowden signed Guzman, just 26, to that four-year, $16.8 million deal. Worse, though, than the .219 average might have been that shoulder, which several Nationals and Twins officials believe caused him problems all through 2005. Finally, the team shut him down in March 2006. On May 8, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum, and he didn't play all year.

Last winter, after he was named manager, Acta flew back to the Dominican to work with Guzman for three days at the Nationals' academy there. "I could see from there that he had new life," Acta said.

And he carried into this season some motivation. He wears No. 15 on his back, but in Washington, he is stamped with .219 and 16.8.

"It was a tough burden to have him signing that big deal and coming over here and hitting .219," Acta said. "It was just tough on him. Probably for the first time, instead of hearing the 'Guuuuz' that he heard here, he was hearing boos over there."

Guzman is typically introverted about the whole matter of 2005. "It was hard," he said, and he allows that the improved health of his shoulder -- not to mention laser surgery to correct his vision -- have helped.

But in scraping his career off the canvas, Guzman is also reshaping his reputation. He still doesn't make every play he should in the field, and some of his six errors in 32 games this season have been careless. But Gardenhire said it's unfair to label Guzman as someone who could hit .219 and shrug it off just because he had that check to cash.

"He was the kind of kid, when he'd have a bad day in here, it really tore him up," Gardenhire said. "He wore his emotions pretty hard. He didn't like to go out and play bad. He didn't like to miss the ball. Guzzy's always cared a lot about the game. People kind of read him wrong."

Now, when they pick up the paper and read his average, they just think they're reading wrong. Cristian Guzman is hitting .346.

"I'm happy," he said, and he smiled.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company