Show of Strength

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Fullerton outfielder Robert Guzman seemed to be living a charmed baseball life only two years ago.

He was a regular as a freshman on the 1999 Titan team that reached the College World Series, and made two catches in Rosenblatt Stadium that became film-clip highlights.

But then the sophomore jinx hit him like a fastball in the helmet.

Guzman batted only .133 through the first two months of last season, and was in the starting lineup for only 17 games all year, though he appeared in 28 others. A hand injury troubled him at times, and a hamstring injury kept him on the sidelines for the NCAA regional. He finished the season batting .284.

More problems developed last fall. Guzman became anemic, and was so tired he could barely report for practice.

"I couldn't bend over to field a ground ball without feeling dizzy," he said. "I was so weak I was only awake about eight hours a day. I'd wake up for three or four hours and have to go back to sleep again."

But Guzman has battled back from anemia, as well as his sub-par sophomore season, to have an outstanding year.

He is batting .330 with three homers and 34 RBIs heading into the Titans' NCAA super-regional series against Mississippi State starting tonight at Goodwin Field.

Last fall, there was doubt Guzman would play at all this season. Troubled and anxious, he went to the university health service for tests.

"I had lost about 40% of my blood," Guzman said. "That was really terrifying to me, as well as my family. They didn't know what the problem was at first, and they tested me for a lot of different things, including cancer of the colon."

A specialist's diagnosis was that Guzman's anemia was caused by an internal tear that caused bleeding in his rectal area.

"It took awhile after that to build back my red blood cells," said Guzman, who didn't return to practice full time until about 10 days before the season began.

"Even now, my blood count is still a little below where it should be," he said, adding that he tries to eat food high in fiber and watches his diet.

Guzman was in the starting lineup only once in the first four games this season. He went two for two when he came off the bench in the second game of the season against Stanford, then was two for four against the Cardinal a day later as a starter.

After being in and out of the lineup for the next several games, Guzman had four hits in six at-bats in Fullerton's 10-6 victory over Tennessee March 2. He has been a starter in the outfield the rest of the season.

Not playing regularly last season was a humbling experience, Guzman said. He spent a week last summer working with former major leaguer Mike Epstein, whose son, Jake, played for the Titans last season. Guzman thinks it helped.

"When [Mike Epstein] was here for some of our games last season, he talked to my dad and said he thought he could help me with some things in my swing," Guzman said.

Guzman stayed at Epstein's house for a week and had a batting lesson each day.

"We also watched just about every baseball game that came on TV that week, and he'd point out things as we watched the hitters. I learned a lot from him. He helped me learn to keep my swing the same on every pitch."

Titan Coach George Horton said Guzman has become more consistent as a hitter.

"He came back with more drive in his swing," Horton said. "He's always been one of our best bunters and hit-and-run guys, and a very good baserunner."

Guzman continues to be one of the team's best outfielders and is error-free this season.

"The great thing about Robby is that he can play any of the three outfield positions, and that's not as easy as it might seem because the angles of the ball can be different," Horton said.

"He has the speed to play center and the arm to play right. He has the strongest and most accurate throwing arm of any of our outfielders."

Horton said only Guzman's "nagging health problems" have kept him from playing up to his full potential at times.

"When Robby is at 100%, he's a special player," Horton said.

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