Making Most of Another Shot; Guillen Has Rewarded Bowden, Nationals for Their Faith in Him

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He stepped into the batter's box at RFK Stadium one day last week, adjusted his stance, took a mighty swing and connected. The ball rose majestically toward the outfield and sailed up, up and away, over the roof in dead center field and out of the ballpark.

No doubt about it, Jose Guillen can really hit. Especially for someone who rarely plays golf.

That's right. Three and a half hours before the Nationals - the first-place Nationals - went out and won yet another baseball game, Guillen, using a driver borrowed from pitcher Joey Eischen, was happily smacking a few balls off a tee planted at home plate.

"I'm not a big fan of golf," he said. "I just like to take some balls and see how far I can hit them. It's fun."

Everything has been fun for Guillen so far, whether it's conducting his own long-driving contest or playing right field, exhorting his teammates or starting another late-inning rally. And why not? The Nationals just completed a 12-1 homestand. They had won 10 straight and led Philadelphia by 11/2 games in the National League East going into last night's game in Anaheim, the start of a nine-game trip that will help determine whether the ballclub is, to quote heavyweight boxer Kevin McBride, "a contender, not a pretender."

The Nationals have won even though Guillen has had a poor June statistically. His batting average has dropped from .305 on May31 to .285, and he had 10 home runs and 32 RBI entering the Angels series. But Guillen is happy to contribute in other ways.

"If I'm not hitting, at least I'm gonna play defense. At least I'm gonna get on base and do all those little things to win some games," he said.

Most important, Guillen is happy, period.

"This has been a great experience for me," he said. "This is a great chemistry we have here, a great attitude. It doesn't get any better than this."

It certainly has been worse. On Sept.25 while playing for Anaheim, which was battling Oakland in a hot division race, Guillen was hit by a pitch in the eighth inning of a game against the Athletics. After he was lifted for a pinch-runner, he returned to the dugout and flipped out. He threw his helmet near Angels manager Mike Scioscia and slammed his glove against the wall.

Guillen, who screamed at teammates the previous May for purportedly not retaliating after he was hit by a pitch, was hitting .294 with 27 home runs and 104 RBI. Yet the Angels suspended him for the rest of the season.

That did not deter Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, the GM of the Cincinnati Reds when Guillen played there in 2002 and 2003. On Nov.19, Bowden traded Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis for Guillen.

Bowden said he did not have to check with anyone to ensure Guillen was a sound investment.

"He has great leadership ability, he plays a good right field, he can throw people out and he's a winner," Bowden said. "He can drive in runs with the game on the line and get the big hit when you need it.

"You should never judge people based on perception," Bowden added. "You should always judge people based on your personal contact. ... Jose's not just a player, he's family. He's a friend of mine. I trust my children with him. He's played with them for hours. He's good people."

Bob Boone, Guillen's manager in Cincinnati and now an assistant to Bowden, said, "I don't believe all these labels. Jose is a guy who plays as hard as he can play and gets upset when you take him out."

Not everyone has felt the same way. In a Los Angeles Times article that described Guillen as "one of the most polarizing figures in recent Angel history," Angels pitcher John Lackey was quoted as saying, "You take him for what he's worth. …