WASHINGTON (AP) -Rapidly shedding the label of free-agent flop, Cristian Guzman could make the case that he's back to his old self. Or even better.
The Washington Nationals shortstop, who for two-plus years epitomized how an organization can spend millions of dollars on a player and get virtually no return, is batting a team-high .346, including an 8-for-14 series in his first return trip to Minnesota since leaving the Twins in 2004. He and the New York Yankees' Bobby Abreu finished the weekend as the only players in the majors hitting .500 since May 30.
``Guzy's just been swinging a good stick since he's come back,'' said first baseman Dmitri Young, the only other Nationals regular hitting over .300. ``He's really energized our lineup.''
He was the player the fans loved to boo, and only a late surge pushed his average to .219 for the season.
Then, last year, Guzman wasn't even around to boo. He missed the season with a shoulder injury.
This year looked like more of the same when Guzman hurt his hamstring running out a grounder in the fifth inning of the opener. He missed about a month, and there was debate as to whether he deserved a chance to play regularly when he returned.
But Guzman had hit well in the spring after adjusting his stance under the eye of hitting coach Mitchell Page, and manager Manny Acta had traveled to the Dominican Republic to personally oversee three days of Guzman's shoulder rehabilitation during the offseason. Also, Guzman was seeing the ball better, having had had laser eye surgery following the 2005 season.
So Acta put Guzman back in the lineup, and the manager's faith was validated. Regularly batting second, Guzman already has five triples this season and four two-hit games this month. Washington is16-15 since he returned from the disabled list - he and Young are two major reasons why the Nationals aren't as awful as anticipated.
``It was a tough burden to have on him, signing that big deal and coming over here and hitting .219,'' Acta said Sunday as the Nationals wrapped the series with the Twins. ``That was just tough on him. Probably for the first time instead of hearing the `Guuuuuz,' he was hearing `booooos.' He really wanted to show people the player that they got out of Minnesota. Then the next year he lost it because of the surgery, so I'm sure he had his motivation, but he doesn't let much out.''
The question of motivation has sometimes dogged Guzman, who was chided occasionally for not hustling during his final years with the Twins. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said the portrayal wasn't accurate.
``I think he cares a lot,'' Gardenhire said. ``There's no doubt in my mind. When he'd have a bad day in here, it really tore him up. He wore his emotions pretty hard. He didn't like to go out and play bad. He didn't like to miss the ball. Guzy's always cared a lot about the game, and people kind of read him wrong and have always thought that he acts like, `Oh well,' but he cares. He cares. Believe me, he cares.''
Guzman isn't big into introspection. Asked why he's hitting the ball better, he said simply: ``I'm not trying to do too much. I just see the ball and turn the bat.''
When pressed, he said he's playing well because he's healthy.
``When you're hurt, you're not the same player,'' Guzman said. ``You're not playing like you're supposed to play.''
Guzman did have a colorful - albeit cryptic - answer when asked about the support he has from Acta. Guzman likened the manager to a father figure who is always welcoming his sons home - even when he's mad at them.
``You feel happy with him every time,'' Guzman said. ``You go, 'Daddy, Daddy,' every time.''
---
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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