By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006
VIERA, Fla., March 18 -- Two hundred fourteen times over the last three seasons, Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson walked from his dugout to the mound, raised his right arm toward the bullpen and made the call for Luis Ayala to enter the game. Ayala was in his first three major league seasons, yet only seven National League pitchers appeared more times.
This season, Robinson won't be able to make that call, for Ayala will have season-ending elbow surgery sometime in the next two weeks after he suffered an acute sprain of the ulnar-collateral ligament in his right elbow while pitching Thursday for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Without Ayala and his average of more than 71 appearances a year, not to mention a career ERA of 2.75, Robinson will emerge from that dugout in the seventh and eighth innings of games this year, raise that right arm -- and the call will go to someone else.
"Are we going to miss him?" Robinson asked Saturday. "You're damn right we're going to miss him. There's no doubt about it. I'm going to miss him. He's a very important part of our staff for three years, ever since he set foot here."
Saturday, Ayala returned to Space Coast Stadium to meet with the team's medical staff. He declined several opportunities to speak to reporters about his injury and his decision to pitch in the WBC even after undergoing surgery on his right elbow in October. Nationals officials believe strongly that Ayala should not have pitched in the WBC and rather should have remained at spring training to build strength in the elbow.
So Saturday was a day both of analyzing the injury and figuring out who, if anybody, can pick up the pieces and be as effective as Ayala for 70 or 80 times this season. Yet such a find is almost unfathomable. Of the 15 National League pitchers who made 200 or more appearances over the last three years, only Houston's Brad Lidge had a better ERA (2.59) than Ayala.
"We'll find somebody I feel like can fill in," Robinson said. "But he just won't be able to do what [Ayala] did, I don't think."
Last year, the Nationals' strength -- and the primary reason they surprisingly went 50-31 in the first half and entered the all-star break leading the National League East -- was a stout bullpen, one that made them nearly impossible to beat from the seventh inning on. Then, Robinson had Ayala, rookie Gary Majewski and veteran Hector Carrasco to bridge the gap between the starter and closer Chad Cordero, who led the majors with 47 saves.
In 2006, after Carrasco signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels and Ayala was hurt, only Majewski returns to his set-up role.
"We're going to get more work than we normally would have," veteran left-hander Joey Eischen said. "That's what it means. We lost a big part of our pen."
If there is any consolation, it is a small one, and it is that the Nationals feel that they have far more depth from which to draw than they did a year ago. The bullpen is almost certainly set, with Cordero, Majewski and Eischen joining long man Jon Rauch, lefty Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez, a veteran right-hander signed as a free agent.
Rodriguez, 33, is 37-25 with a 3.51 ERA in 10 major league seasons. He pitched last year for the New York Yankees, where he went on the disabled list with a left knee injury, but Robinson and the Nationals staff have been pleased with his five appearances thus far, though he has a 5.68 ERA.
"Felix has the track record to where you've seen that he can be effective," Robinson said. "He throws a lot. In the past he has, anyway. So it's not that you're sitting here saying, 'Show me what you can do.' "
If there are injuries -- and General Manager Jim Bowden constantly reminds observers that major league clubs employ an average of roughly 20 pitchers per year -- the Nationals feel like they could reach to the minors and bring up someone of decent quality.
"The big difference this year is not so much this [major league] clubhouse," Eischen said, "but what we'll be able to pull out of Triple A. Last year if you got hurt, you got hurt."
Jason Bergmann made his major league debut last year and impressed with a 2.75 ERA in 15 appearances. He would likely be the first call-up. But there are others. Lefty Billy Traber has shown an effective change-up this spring. Kevin Gryboski was once an important part of the Atlanta bullpen, and he has a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings here. Throw in lefty prospect Bill Bray and newcomers Kyle Denney, Santiago Ramirez and Steve Watkins, and the depth is "much better than last year," Robinson said.
Which, of course, still doesn't make up for the loss of Ayala. Catcher Brian Schneider was in the opposing dugout when Ayala threw his fateful pitch for Mexico against the United States. Schneider, who has caught Ayala more than anyone, said he was worried when his teammate entered the game. The injury, he said, was upsetting.
"I was a little ticked off, to be honest with you," Schneider said. "He's one of my guys. I'm a catcher and I'm responsible for a lot of guys. To see one of your best relievers go down because he wasn't ready to go, it ticked me off a little bit.
"I know he's very patriotic and he's proud to be a Mexican. There's nothing wrong with that. He wanted to be there for his country. It's one thing to go there if you're ready to pitch. It's another thing to go there if you're not."
The Nationals' job now is to find people who are ready to pitch. There is little hope they can find someone as effective as Ayala.