By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006
VIERA, Fla., March 17 -- Washington Nationals right-hander Luis Ayala, an essential set-up man in the team's stalwart bullpen, will undergo season-ending surgery on his right elbow after suffering an acute ligament sprain in the World Baseball Classic. The news left Nationals officials livid about the way Ayala -- who underwent offseason elbow surgery -- was handled by the Mexican team and highlights the potential perils of the WBC, which puts major league players in competitive situations at a time when they would normally be building slowly toward the season.
Nationals President Tony Tavares said the club had repeatedly communicated its concerns about Ayala to officials from the Mexican team, the WBC and Major League Baseball, as well as to Ayala. An official appeal to prevent Ayala, 28, from playing was denied because medical reports showed that he was on pace to recover for the season.
Still, the Nationals wanted Ayala -- who went 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 68 appearances last year -- under their watch while he rebuilt strength in his arm.
"We thought it was a bad decision to let him pitch," Tavares said by phone Friday from Washington. "It doesn't take a genius to figure this out. You know what surgery is like on elbows. It takes time to rebound from them. It's usually a process that has a certain cadence to it. This was accelerating that cadence. We were concerned, very concerned -- and as it shows right now, for good reason."
When Ayala -- who appeared to be using an awkward, sidearm motion -- sent his final pitch to Alex Rodriguez on Thursday night, the pertinent point seemed to be that he missed the strike zone with the count full. Rodriguez walked, keeping the United States at least momentarily alive in the ninth inning. But the ramifications were felt more acutely here, more than 2,500 miles from Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where Mexico beat the U.S. team, 2-1.
Moments later, and Ayala was out of the game. His agent, Joseph Longo, said Ayala had complained that his elbow was "tight" during spring training and at the tournament. The Nationals pleaded with Ayala not to play, but he went anyway, in part because there was pressure to compete for his country. He and former Nationals Vinny Castilla, Esteban Loaiza and Antonio Osuna made up a strong Mexican contingent on the 2005 Washington team, often speaking emotionally about their home country.
"The gist I got was there was patriotic pressure, yes," Longo said by phone. "It was a combination of the press, of pride and of machismo. But at the same time, I do know that myself and some of the veterans -- Loaiza and Osuna, in particular -- told him to be careful, to not come back too fast."
Though Ayala appeared only twice in the WBC, the Nationals are convinced that his injury could have been prevented if he had remained with the club. On Friday morning in Los Angeles, Ayala saw renowned orthopedic specialist Lewis Yocum, who performed surgery to remove a bone spur from Ayala's right elbow in October. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said that Yocum's diagnosis of an acute sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament indicated that Ayala suffered the injury on the final pitch to Rodriguez.
"Our medical staff has advised me that they don't believe that this injury would have happened if he had been in the care of our medical staff and on our plan," Bowden said. "This is a devastating injury. It's a devastating loss to the club."
Even though Ayala was urged by Nationals officials and teammates not to pitch in the WBC, there were no medical reports that explicitly prevented him from going. On Feb. 20, Bowden said of both Ayala and second baseman Jose Vidro, who is rehabilitating a chronically bad knee: "We couldn't prove medically that they couldn't play. I'd just prefer that, if they get injured, they get injured in our house, not in theirs." Bowden said Friday he believes clubs should be able to deny any player who had undergone surgery in the past year the right to play in the WBC.
Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association and a member of the committee that organized the WBC, said by phone Friday that tournament officials were aware of Ayala's medical history and of the Nationals' wishes, but that because he would have been pitching with the Nationals during spring training -- and not on the disabled list -- the WBC couldn't tell him no.
"He was aware that it would be more competitive," Orza said. "It's hard to tell a player that even though there's no report saying you shouldn't play, and even though you want to play, that somehow you should be disallowed.
"It's unfortunate what happened, but I'm confident that we did the right thing with Ayala."
The Nationals are just as confident that WBC officials did the wrong thing. Tavares said the Nationals pleaded directly to Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations and a member of the WBC's technical committee, and Ed Burns, MLB's vice president of operations and administration, about Ayala. Garagiola declined to comment when asked about Ayala's situation at WBC workouts in San Diego.
"We're paying his salary," Tavares said. "I would hope that we would have more input. We didn't in this case. We objected to it initially. We then supported that with a letter from our doctor indicating that he should be brought along a heck of a lot more slowly than he would be in the tournament.
"The people that were on this committee -- and I don't even know who they are -- chose to ignore the doctor's recommendation. At best, that's arrogant. At worst, it's neglect. . . .
"The player wanted to play. Luis has got to take some of the responsibility. But what's he going to do when you ask him to go into a game that you want to win very badly? Well, congratulations, you won, and you ruined the player for the year."
Vidro said he chose not to play in the WBC for his native Puerto Rico because he was worried about a similar development. He said teammates advised Ayala not to go.
"He didn't listen, man," Vidro said. "And now, he's going to have to deal with the situation. We have to deal with the situation."
While Ayala was away, Tim Abraham, the Nationals' head athletic trainer, kept in touch with the Mexican athletic training staff to monitor Ayala's progress. Ayala threw only 12 pitches in his two outings, but Nationals officials are convinced he didn't get proper work on the side to rebuild strength in his arm.
"You can give them all the information you have, but there's no way that we could've followed him as closely as they would have," Abraham said. Ayala is scheduled to have the surgery within the next few weeks. Asked what the Nationals would do to replace him, Bowden said: "He's irreplaceable. You can't replace Luis Ayala. Not through your farm system. Not through a trade."
The injury, though, likely means the Nationals' bullpen is set for the season with veteran Felix Rodriguez all but certain to take Ayala's role protecting leads in the seventh or eighth inning. He will join closer Chad Cordero, right-handers Gary Majewski and Jon Rauch and lefties Mike Stanton and Joey Eischen.
Friday afternoon, Ayala was on his way back here, where he will rest and let the pain subside before undergoing surgery. But that one pitch could be remembered as the most important of the inaugural WBC, even though neither Mexico nor the United States advanced to the semifinals.
"If he doesn't recover, he's going to be the poster child for why not to participate in the Classic," Longo said. "I hope Major League Baseball takes this as a learning experience, because I do think the pressure Luis felt contributed to this. You've got a game you want to win with a large, boisterous crowd, and all those patriotic feelings. I think they need to monitor this thing, and keep track of who should play and who shouldn't, more closely than they did."
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report from San Diego.