For such a quiet, unassuming man, Juan Guzman is at the center of some of the most urgent questions hanging over the Baltimore Orioles franchise. What went wrong this year? Can the season be saved? Will the club begin dumping trade-worthy players in the coming months?
On its own, Guzman's outstanding performance today in a 5-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field did not answer any of those questions. But if Guzman's shutout is indeed the game that turns around his season, and if the Orioles' three straight well-pitched games represent more than a fluke, there may be hope that something better awaits this team.
Guzman's best start of the season gave the Orioles a three-game winning streak for only the second time this year. Along with Sidney Ponson's nine-inning, two-run stint the night before, it marked the club's first back-to-back complete games since the team's pitchers had three complete games in a row in September 1995.
"Back-to-back complete games," Manager Ray Miller said, "feels like finding a gold mine."
On Sunday night, the Orioles will go for their first road sweep of the season, with ace Mike Mussina facing Braves power right-hander John Smoltz.
And the good news continues: Albert Belle, back in the lineup after a one-game benching, had two hits, scored once and ran hard on grounders. Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick led off the game with back-to-back homers off Braves right-hander Kevin Millwood (6-4). Later in the inning, Will Clark had his first home run since coming off the disabled list on May 25.
Still, the crisp, focused pitching of Guzman (3-4) was a particularly nice development for the Orioles. Guzman's puzzling ineffectiveness, along with that of fellow starter Scott Erickson, has been a big disappointment for Baltimore this season. Entering this week, the Orioles were 6-18 in games started by Guzman or Erickson.
Today Guzman had command of all three of his pitches: a sinking fastball that induces ground balls, a change-up that runs down and away from left-handed batters and a nasty slider that breaks away sharply from right-handers. Guzman needed only 109 pitches to complete the game, and didn't record a fly-ball out until the sixth inning.
"Today was as close as I've seen him to the year when he was the ERA champion," said Clark, referring to 1996, when Guzman led the American League with a 2.93 ERA.
"That was vintage Juan," said Miller, who has been critical of Guzman's high pitch-counts and lack of savvy on the mound this season. "He was throwing strikes, keeping the ball down. . . . It's a big pickup for him. I hope he takes it and runs with it. Maybe this will get him thinking positive thoughts."
Guzman pitched well, but he also had help. He had one base runner erased when catcher Charles Johnson threw a rocket to second to nab would-be base stealer Brian Jordan; Ryan Klesko was tagged out on an ill-advised attempt to stretch a single into a double; and Andruw Jones was doubled off second on a line drive to left field. The rest was all Guzman. He gave up six hits, all singles, and walked two.
"I felt the same way as I have every other day," he insisted. "My focus was on what I've been working on mechanically. Everything is getting better and better. I've been overthrowing a little bit."
If the Orioles fail to turn their season around and decide to begin trading players, Guzman could be one of the first to go. He makes $5.5 million this season, a hefty price tag for a pitcher with 16 wins the past three seasons, and will become a free agent after this season.
"I know how to pitch," he said today. "I can help any team. I'd like to stay [with the Orioles]. I know we have a good team. Even though we're not doing so well now, it's a great organization. I feel like we're family. I hope I can stay here and help us go to the playoffs."
CAPTION: Juan Guzman yielded only six singles and two walks in 109-pitch shutout, and Orioles' second consecutive complete game.
CAPTION: Shortstop Mike Bordick, who hit one of Orioles' three first-inning homers, turns double play despite Andruw Jones.