Nats Let It Go in the Eighth

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008; 2:51 AM

SAN FRANCISCO, July 23 -- When Luis Ayala walked off the field Wednesday night, two things were gone: his confidence and his team's lead. After that, the last thing to do was wonder what caused the combustion.

As the eighth inning ended, Ayala returned to the dugout, body language spelling disgust. His arms dragged. He rubbed his face. In the previous minutes, his team had lost a one-run lead. And Ayala had lost his latest chance to reverse an unsettling season.

Brought on in the eighth inning against San Francisco, Ayala flip-flopped a win into a 6-4 loss to the Giants. He dropped to 1-6, raised his ERA to 5.77 and heightened questions about what happened to his old effectiveness. Asked what's wrong, Ayala answered, directly, "Everything."

In recent weeks, mechanics have betrayed the right-hander; during his wind-up, he tends to open his body prematurely, especially when trying to make the perfect pitch. Often, pitching coach Randy St. Claire has said, Ayala reverts to his worst tendencies when Washington can least afford it. At the same time, a more ingrained problem has undermined his approach. Without confidence in his best pitch -- a sinking fastball -- Ayala has been leaning on his change-up, the exact kind of pitch Rich Aurilia hammered into the left field gap, scoring the tying and go-ahead runs. Ayala is walking hitters, falling behind in counts and, sometimes, missing the strike zone by several feet.

Said St. Claire: "You can't do that in the eighth inning."

Before this season, Ayala's ERA never topped 3.19. Based on his track record, he began the season as one of baseball's most reliable set-up men. During those seasons, Ayala threw his sinker 80 percent of the time -- even when hitters knew it was coming. Confidence allows you to do that. But now, Ayala is throwing his sinker 50 percent of the time.

St. Claire has shown Ayala the numbers. He's told Ayala that his best pitch can still hum. As always, it hits the mid-90s. It can still be the foundation of his career.

If he lets it.

"Aurilia beat him with his fourth-best pitch," Acta said.

At least until the eighth, Washington had played one of its best games of the season. Rookie pitcher Collin Balester had overcome a two-run first inning, yielding just one run in his final four innings, holding his pitch count to an efficient 74 and displaying a vicious curveball.

The Nationals, continuing their post all-star break offensive surge, pounded San Francisco starter Kevin Correia for 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings. Six hits in the sixth, including a Jesús Flores two-run homer, boosted the Nationals to a 4-3 lead and put Balester in line for the win.

Ayala simply needed to secure it. When he entered the game, Acta had already used three relief pitchers, including Saul Rivera, who recorded the final two outs of the seventh. Ayala's combustion, though, later had Acta reconsidering the hierarchy of his bullpen, which one day earlier had lost closer Jon Rauch in a trade with Arizona. Asked if he would re-think Ayala's role as an eighth-inning set-up man, Acta said, "Absolutely, because he hasn't been successful there."

Ayala gave up three hits in the eighth, starting with a Bengie Molina single on an 0-2 count. After a flyout and a walk, Ayala faced Aurilia, the San Francisco third baseman. From flanking bullpens, both teams' closers -- Joel Hanrahan and Brian Wilson -- watched the action, waiting to learn whose night would be relevant. To Aurilia, Ayala threw eight pitches, one of them tailing several feet inside. Still, the count grew fat, 2-2, with several fouls. That's when Ayala decided to go to his change-up.

A mistake.

Aurilia pounded the pitch into the left-center gap.

Everybody moved. Center fielder Willie Harris raced to his right, cutting the ball off just before it hit the wall, and San Francisco's baserunners -- pinch runner Emmanuel Burriss and John Bowker -- flew around the bases, and the Giants third base coach Tim Flannery let his left arm make frantic windmills. Burriss and Bowker scored, beating Cristian Guzmán's throw home on a relay from Harris. The Giants had the lead. Ayala let up one more hit, the Giants gained a security run, and the night ended with a long walk back to the dugout.

"Like I said, he's got to get confidence," St. Claire said. "Even when he throws [the sinker], it's tentative. It's not thrown with relaxation and execution. He's just got to get that confidence back.

He needs three or four good games, get that confidence back, and then maybe get on a roll. Because we need him. We need him bad."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company