After Washington Nationals right-hander Luis Ayala pitched a scoreless eighth inning against the New York Mets on Aug. 21, no other National League pitcher had appeared in more games. Ayala's ERA through those 66 appearances was 2.55, and he was an essential piece of Washington's bullpen.

Since then, Ayala has pitched to one batter -- Atlanta's Andruw Jones, who hit a game-ending home run in the 10th inning on Sept. 1. A bone spur in Ayala's right elbow cost him a month, and altered the way Manager Frank Robinson used his bullpen.

Monday, though, Ayala threw in a simulated game at RFK Stadium, and though doctors will evaluate him again today, he expressed optimism that he might pitch again this season.

"I try to work hard for the rest of the season," Ayala said. "I hope I'm available for every day."

When the Nationals were at their best, Robinson had Ayala, Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco as set-up men to get to closer Chad Cordero. Now, because starters Tony Armas Jr. and Ryan Drese are out for the season with injuries, Carrasco is in the rotation. That, coupled with Ayala's injury, has put undue strain on Majewski and Cordero, who entered last night's game against the San Francisco Giants with 145 appearances between them.

"It's kind of taken a toll on those guys," Robinson said. "Also, it's kind of tied my hands a little bit [preventing] the moves that I've been making all season long."

The experience has been difficult for Ayala, too.

"I'm thinking I should be in there," he said. "It makes it hurt more. When I see the game is close, and I think I should be in, I can do nothing."

Schneider Returns to Lineup

Catcher Brian Schneider returned to the lineup for the first time since Sept. 11 having missed the entire six-game road trip, save for two innings on Sept. 13, with shoulder soreness. He tested his throwing motion prior to Sunday's game in San Diego, and he said then that the key was how it felt afterward. "It wasn't any worse," he said.

Schneider's replacement, Gary Bennett, is six for his last 44, dropping his average to .220.