With time off for the Memorial Day holiday in America, we have a lot of ground to cover. This week, we’re focusing on the best and worst in pinch hitting over the last two weeks. In the National League West. For the last-place San Diego Padres. By former starter but now utility player Jesus Guzman.
The Seattle Mariners signed the native from Venezuela to free-agent amateur contract in 2000, when he was just 16 years old. Four years later, he played his first season of professional baseball, with the Mariners’ High-A team in the California League. He moved up to Double-A the following year, but then stalled, staying in Double-A another year, and going back to High-A the year after that. At 23, Guzman was heading in the wrong direction.
The Mariners released Guzman before the 2008 season. He signed on with the Oakland A’s and played a full season among the Rookie League, Double-A and Triple-A. Then the A’s released him. Another year, another team. This time, the San Francisco Giants. And finally, his first major-league call-up.
Guzman debuted on May 21, 2009, coming in as a pinch hitter for the Giants in a game against the Padres at Petco Park. Guzman grounded into a double play and struck out in his two plate appearances. He played in three more games before returning to Triple-A, came back in July, again for three games, and then back in September when rosters expanded. His 2009 major-league totals: 20 plate appearances, five singles, no walks, three strikeouts. He saw no major-league actionin 2010, spending the entire season with the Giants’ Triple-A team. San Francisco released him in the off-season.
At age 26, Guzman signed on with the Padres, his fourth professional team. Finally, something clicked. After two months with Padres’ Triple-A club in Tuscon, Guzman debuted with San Diego on June 17, 2011. He replaced Jorge Cantu, who tried — and failed — to make a comeback with the Padres. Guzman became the everyday first baseman for the Padres, with occasional stints in the outfield. In 76 games, he batted .312/.369/.478, making him the Padres’ best hitter in the second half of the season.
Despite his success in 2011, Guzman lost the first base job this season to Yonder Alonso, who the Padres acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in the Mat Latos trade. Guzman shifted to left field, to cover for the injured Carlos Quentin. But Guzman couldn’t repeat his 2011 performance, posting a .209/.254/.269 line in April. Things improved in May, but not nearly enough. When Quentin was ready to return on May 28, the Padres sent Guzman to the bench.
Immediately, San Diego needed Guzman off the bench in a tightly-contested, three-game series in Chicago against the Cubs on May 28-30. Needed Guzman to get a hit in a critical spot in all three games. But Guzman couldn’t deliver.
In first game of the series, the Padres were trailing 8-7 in the top of the 7th inning. With runners on first and third, and two outs, Guzman stepped in against Cubs’ reliever Randy Wells. He struck out on three pitches. The Padres lost the game.
It was more of the same the next day. Again, in the top of the 7th, the Padres trailed by one run. With runners on second and third, and two outs, Guzman pinch hit, facing Cubs’ starter Jeff Samardzija. Same results: a strikeout for Guzman and a loss for the Padres.
In the final game of the series, Guzman came in as a pinch hitter in the 8th inning, with the Padres clinging to a one-run lead. With the bases empty, he grounded out weakly to the shortstop. San Diego’s bullpen coughed up the lead, sending the game to extras. The Cubs won on a Darwin Barney walk-off home run, sweeping the series, and sending the Padres to their sixth straight loss.
After an off day, the Padres hosted the Arizona Diamondbacks for three games this past weekend. And Friday was a night of redemption for Guzman. After failing to come through in three consecutive pinch-hit appearances in Chicago, Guzman stepped to the plate with one out, and one on in the bottom of the 8th inning, with the scored tied 1-1. Guzman blasted a pinch-hit, two run homer, kicking off a six-run inning for the San Diego. They won the game 7-1.
But, alas, Saturday brought more misery for Guzman and the Padres. They trailed the D’backs 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth. D’backs closer J. J. Putz quickly retired the first two batters, but then hit Carlos Quentin and gave up a single to Chase Headley, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Guzman stepped into the batter’s box with a chance to tie the game or better. Instead, he lined out to the first baseman, ending the game.
Five critical pinch-hit appearances in one week. One game-winning home run and four costly outs. Jesus Guzman may not be an every day player anymore, but he’s having a big impact on the Padres. And that makes him our Impact Index Player of the Week.