By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
NEW YORK, Sept. 9 -- The right field bullpen gate opened in the ninth inning, and out he came, on a beeline straight toward the chaos. His gangly gait -- how he bounced on his toes as he jogged toward the mound -- looked so familiar. The mariachi music played. Here, the New York Mets were trusting a lead -- in one of the season's most volatile games, no less -- to a pitcher the Washington Nationals shipped away because they no longer trusted him. For his new team, Luis Ayala is now a closer.
Ayala pitched just long enough to complete a role reversal. While recording the final three outs of a 10-8 Mets win at Shea Stadium on Tuesday, Ayala shared little resemblance to the night's other pitchers, all accessories to a slugfest. Just as important, Ayala shared little resemblance to the pitcher Washington traded Aug. 17, at which time he had a 1-8 record and a 5.77 ERA.
Subbing for injured closer Billy Wagner, Ayala breezed 1-2-3. He forced Lastings Milledge into a fly to left. He froze Elijah Dukes on an inside fastball with the count full. He ended the game with a weak Kory Casto grounder to first. He threw almost exclusively fastballs, a sign of renewed confidence in his best pitch, which he hesitated to use with Washington this year. Ayala's sixth save in seven chances with the Mets lowered his ERA with his new team to 2.45 and reinforced how a change in scenery can change the results.
Indeed, unhappy with his setup role in Washington, Ayala had requested a trade. His performance since, he said, hasn't surprised him.
"I went into the office [on Aug. 17], they said I got traded and it finally arrived," Ayala said. "I was very happy. I got a new team. I want to say thank you; you guys gave me good years, and the past is in the past, and now I'm here to help my team."
This game featured 14 pitchers and, until the end, scant demonstration of good pitching. Back and forth it went, in an outrageous affair of one-upsmanship. To regain the lead, each team needed only to wait for its half inning to bat. The Mets led by two, and then the game was tied, and then the Mets led by three, and then the Nationals pulled ahead by two, and then the Mets tied it again.
Oh, and then the Nationals jumped ahead by one in the fifth. Which was fine for a few minutes, until the Mets took the lead by two in the sixth. The game's dizzying kinetic energy had but one upshot for the Shea faithful: As the game reached its final innings, they had no clue what next to expect.
The pitchers who began this night -- both lefties with sub-4.00 ERAs -- offered the promise of a quick duel where the scoring was precious. Turned out, all the scoring knocked out John Lannan after three innings and Oliver Pérez after 3 1/3 . Neither starter had made a shorter appearance all summer.
Said Manager Manny Acta, "It was a tough night for pitchers."
By the end of the fourth inning, the night's back-and-forth motion had already produced a pile-up of numbers. Through four, the teams had combined for 14 runs, 21 hits and 5 pitchers. Ryan Zimmerman was already 3 for 3. Twice, Carlos Delgado received "M-V-P" chants. At least five or six times, momentum reversed.
It reversed when Lannan allowed three straight rocket-fast hits (and the game's first two runs) in the second inning, his first sign of distress.
It reversed when Cristian Guzmán, with a runner on first, skied a ball down the line that traveled 340 feet -- good news, only because the left field fence was 338 feet away.
It reversed when both Ryan Church and Delgado belted vicious home runs for the Mets in the third, helping New York grab a 5-2 lead.
It reversed when the Nationals, in one of their most productive frames of the season, had eight of their first nine reach in the top of the fourth, en route to a five-run inning. Six players in a row -- starting with catcher Wil Nieves -- hit singles. When Milledge stroked a line drive to center, scoring Guzmán, Washington claimed a 7-5 lead. But the Nationals claimed no right to exhale.
The Mets took the lead, once and for all, right after pitcher Jason Bergmann issued a walk and was lifted for lefty Charlie Manning. Washington led 8-7. Four pitches later, both Carlos Beltrán and Delgado had homered, and New York led 10-8.
"They just hit our mistakes today," Nieves said. "We threw a lot of mistakes today, maybe one every at bat, and they were taking advantage of it."