Ayala's Absence Has Left a Hole in the Bullpen

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Luis Ayala wasn't in Atlanta over the weekend, and he did not join his Washington Nationals teammates in Chicago, where the team begins a three-game series today. Instead, Ayala will be in Phoenix, the site of his rehabilitation from season-ending elbow surgery. Don't be surprised, though, if his name isn't invoked at some time this week.

"Absolutely, we miss him," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Since coming up with the Montreal Expos in 2003, Ayala has made 214 appearances for the franchise, and no right-handed reliever in the National League had more than his 62 holds during that time period. Now, with Ayala out of the mix, the effect on the Nationals' entire bullpen is being felt on a daily basis. Asked how many more wins Ayala's presence might have meant this season, Robinson said, "Try five or six."

Through Sunday, the Nationals had four players who ranked in the top eight in the National League in appearances. Felix Rodriguez was tied for the league lead with 22, followed by Jon Rauch and Mike Stanton (20) and Gary Majewski (19). That kind of strain is already being felt.

The Nationals' bullpen, their strength a year ago, already has blown seven save opportunities and has an ERA of 4.66. In 2005, the team's relievers blew 18 saves the whole year, and their ERA was more than a run lower -- 3.55. Ayala's loss to the elbow injury -- which occurred while he was pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic -- is a primary reason for the struggle.

The Nationals now have an 11-man pitching staff, a decision General Manager Jim Bowden made because of yesterday's off day. But they could add one more pitcher during the Cubs series.

Shawn Hill, 3-2 with a 2.82 ERA for Class AA Harrisburg, is a candidate to be brought up. Jason Bergmann, demoted to Class AAA New Orleans on Sunday to make room for catcher Wiki Gonzalez, must remain in the minors for 10 days before he can be recalled, unless there's an injury on the major league staff.

Nats Digging Graves?

Keep an eye on right-handed reliever Danny Graves, who was designated for assignment by the Cleveland Indians on Friday.

Though Bowden couldn't be reached to comment yesterday, he originally traded for Graves when he ran the Cincinnati Reds, and last year, when the Reds dumped him, Bowden made a strong play before Graves opted to join the New York Mets.

Graves could become particularly enticing -- despite his 5.79 ERA in 13 appearances for the Indians -- if lefty Joey Eischen continues to struggle. Eischen's ERA is 10.45 in 16 appearances, and opponents are hitting .326 against him.

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