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Suzuki brings experience, wisdom to Nats

WASHINGTON -- For a moment on Wednesday night, it appeared as though Kurt Suzuki was going to become the sixth injured Nationals catcher this season.

In the fourth inning of the 5-1 loss to the Braves, Suzuki took a foul tip by Chipper Jones directly off the back of his right hand, and he was in immediate, obvious pain.

Nevertheless, X-rays taken after the game were negative, and the Nats dodged another bullet.

En route to baseball's best record at 77-47, the Nationals have seen their Opening Day catcher, Wilson Ramos, tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and two other catchers -- Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano -- make their Major League debuts. Jesus Flores has caught a team-high 73 games, but he has also battled injuries and ineffectiveness at the plate. Carlos Maldonado, a four-year veteran, also caught four games in May before ending up on the disabled list with a lower back strain.

So Suzuki, with six years and more than 700 games of experience, was an immediate upgrade for his wisdom and prowess in calling games behind the plate.

"Kurt comes with a lot of experience," reliever Craig Stammen said. "He knows how to work with new pitchers. He's been through that with people getting called up and down. He's been through the league, he knows a lot of the guys."

Six catchers have lined up behind home plate for the Major League's best pitching staff, and it took until Aug. 3 to get the most experienced one back there. Suzuki came to the Nationals in a trade with the A's for Minor League backstop David Freitas, and manager Davey Johnson immediately touted him as the starting catcher for the Nats, whose starting rotation boasts an MLB-best 3.22 ERA.

Suzuki's offensive numbers haven't improved from the .218/.250/.286 marks he posted in 75 games with Oakland this year -- he enters Thursday batting .191/.235/.234 with Washington -- but acquiring the 28-year-old catcher was never about offense.

"He had a little bigger swing when he got here," Johnson said. "He's been working on that with [hitting coach] Rick Eckstein. I like where he's at right now. He's been spending a lot of his time studying our pitchers, studying the opposing hitters. He's a student of the game. He's smart."

Given his struggles at the plate, Suzuki's first month in Washington has been relatively quiet. But because the Nats have scored the second-most runs in baseball since the All-Star break, the lack of firepower from their catchers has been manageable, especially considering that Suzuki's main priority has been learning his new pitching staff.

"You do scouting reports and you've got to learn the pitchers, but I try not to make it too difficult," Suzuki said. "I let the media talk about that. I just go out there and do my job and keep it as simple as I can, not trying to overthink things."

Simple as the transition may seem, Suzuki had been with the A's since they selected him in the second round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. But once he cleared waivers, Suzuki and his four-year, $16.25 million contract -- which runs through 2013 with an option for '14 -- were sent to the Nats.

"It's definitely challenging, it's like anything," Suzuki said. "It's like anybody going into a different environment. You're with one organization for so long and you get thrown into a different environment, of course it's going to take some time.

"But it's fun, and these guys are a great group of guys. It's just an exciting time."

Making it more exciting for Suzuki -- and easier for the Nationals -- is his familiarity with one of his teammates, left-hander Gio Gonzalez. Acquired from the A's in a six-player trade last December, Gonzalez leads the Nats in wins, with 16, and his 3.23 ERA is the third lowest in the rotation.

The affable, 26-year-old Gonzalez broke into the Majors on Aug. 6, 2008, in a start against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, with Suzuki behind the plate. Gonzalez took the loss that day, allowing four runs on four hits over six innings, but a solid battery was formed. In the 77 games he's pitched with Suzuki behind the plate, Gonzalez has limited opponents to a .243 batting average and a .716 OPS.

"You appreciate the fact that he's one of those guys that's going to make it easier for you," Gonzalez said. "He never wants anything worse for you. He's always going to work harder and harder for you. So I think when we acquired him, there was a big smile on all of our faces."

Washington Nationals, Kurt Suzuki