By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008
At some point, Cristian Guzmán will live down that 2005 season, the wasted six-month stretch that forged an image of him in Washington. Don't sugarcoat it. That summer, it could be argued, Guzmán was the worst player in the majors. He then lost all of 2006 to a shoulder injury, most of 2007 to hamstring and thumb problems. What else would Nationals fans have to go by?
Perhaps by yesterday afternoon, though, some of those images had been if not erased, then altered. There was Guzmán, lining a ball over the fence in the first. There he was, with an RBI single. There he was again, drilling a three-run double. Add it all up, and Guzmán drove in six runs in the Nationals' tenuous 9-8 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before a Saturday afternoon crowd of 34,128 at Nationals Park.
On Sept. 1, 2005, Guzmán was hitting .195. After yesterday's 4-for-5 performance -- one that delivered the Nationals' fifth win in their last six games -- the shortstop is hitting .303. Why even bring up the past?
"That's three years ago," Guzmán said. "Why do I have to think about 2005? We're in 2008. Let's think about 2008."
It is, of course, so much more palatable. Guzmán has undergone two career-altering surgeries since the nadir of his career, the first to fix his shoulder, the second a Lasik procedure to fix his eyesight. That one he considers more important, and the evidence could be in his 46-game stint last season, when he hit .328.
"For me, I think that's the biggest, my eyes," he said.
In all the analysis of the Nationals' offensive woes through the first five weeks of the season, Guzmán has been largely overlooked. Perhaps it's because being a hot hitter in the Washington lineup is an anomaly. He helped the Nationals build a 5-1 lead with a two-run homer in the first and an RBI single in the second. After starter Matt Chico and reliever Jesús Colome combined to give that back, he broke a 5-5 tie with a bases-loaded double in the sixth. His six RBI -- tying a career high set in 2001, when he was with Minnesota -- gave him 14 this year, one off Nick Johnson's team high.
"He's healthy," Manager Manny Acta said. "He's not walking a lot. But just being healthy, having that [eye] surgery a couple of years ago, he's making better contact and really enjoying the game."
This, then, is the player General Manager Jim Bowden envisioned when he signed Guzmán to a four-year, $16.8 million contract after the 2004 season, the Nationals' first major acquisition after they arrived from Montreal. Though Guzmán shudders at the mere suggestion of the 2005 season, it must be considered when discussing his turnaround. Yesterday, playing in his 30th game, he collected his team-high 40th hit. In 2005, his 40th hit came on June 11 -- in his 60th game. His 14th RBI in 2005 came on Aug. 4 -- his 95th game.
"He's swinging the bat real good," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "He's been swinging it real good all year."
Yet all of this might have meant little had the Nationals not held on, improving to 7-3 on their longest homestand of the year, one that concludes this afternoon. Chico squandered that 5-1 lead in the fifth in part because Pittsburgh first baseman Adam LaRoche, Chico's last hitter of the day, hit a bouncing ball up the middle that barely eluded Guzmán and second baseman Felipe López. That single made it 5-4, and Colome gave up the single to José Bautista -- who is 6 for 11 with three homers and seven RBI in the series -- that tied it.
"I wanted to get deep in the game only to help the team out," Chico said. "I ended up losing the lead for them."
Guzmán got it back in the sixth. With no one out and runners on first and second, López hit a fly ball that Pittsburgh right fielder Xavier Nady lost in the sky. It fell for a single, loading the bases. Guzman followed by scalding the first pitch he saw from reliever Franquelis Osoria deep, just to the right of center field, scoring the three men ahead of him.
"I trust the guy behind me," López said.
Eventually staked to a 9-5 lead, the Nationals' relievers -- still a bit queasy with closer Chad Cordero on the disabled list -- had to trust the guys behind them, too. Saúl Rivera gave up three straight singles that led to a run in the seventh. Nady tagged Luis Ayala for a two-out, two-run double in the eighth that made it 9-8.
So it was up to de facto closer Jon Rauch to protect a one-run lead on a day when the Nationals matched a season-high with 14 hits. With one out, Rauch walked Ronny Paulino, and speedy Nyjer Morgan pinch-ran. Morgan stole second on Rauch's first pitch to pinch hitter Ryan Doumit.
Doumit eventually flied out, but Morgan remained the tying run at second. Rauch turned several times to check on Morgan, with Guzmán dancing behind him.
"You got two outs," Rauch said. "You're trying to get the guy at the plate. But at the same time, if he hits a weak single, you want to keep that guy at second close so he doesn't have an opportunity to score and tie the game up."
At the plate was Pirates' leadoff man Nate McLouth, a left-handed hitter. The Nationals shaded him to pull. When McLouth grounded a ball up the middle, there was -- who else? -- Guzmán, playing almost behind second. He snared the ball, twirled to make the throw, and perfectly ended his perfect day.