Shortly before noon today, Luis Ayala strolled into the Nationals’ clubhouse, an old Orioles equipment bag slung over his shoulder. “Ayala!” one of the clubhouse attendants called out. “Welcome back!” Ayala grinned and embraced him.
Ayala felt at home on his first day with his new team, which is also his old team. A 36-year-old reliever who last week joined the Nationals on a minor league contract, Ayala chose the Nationals and familiarity over similar offers from the Tigers and Phillies, he said. He played for the original Nationals in 2005, two years after he broke into the majors with the Expos.
“I make a decision because I love this organization,” Ayala said. “They gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. I got a lot of friends. They know me. I know these guys really well. I was so happy to be part of the Nationals, especially at this time of my career.”
Ayala knows he will have to compete for a spot in the Nationals’ crowded bullpen. He received no guaranteed contract offers even after he punched up a 2.90 ERA in 37 games for the Braves last season with a career-best groundball rate. Ayala, in part, blames the Braves.
Last April, shortly after the Braves traded for Ayala from the Orioles, Atlanta placed him on the 15-day disabled list with an anxiety disorder. According to a person familiar with Ayala’s situation, the pitcher was placed on the disabled list after he refused to board a flight from Colorado. Ayala, though, said a stomach bacteria prevented him from pitching and that he never experienced an anxiety disorder. He believes the public diagnosis scared teams away this winter.
“I was trying to fix that news when it happened,” Ayala said. “I was too sick. I had a bacteria. I was talking to the Braves, why they don’t make a correction? I think they don’t care. For some reason, it affected me in my contract. I don’t have a guarantee, I’ve got to make the team. But I don’t care. It’s in the past. But I can’t prove I got a bacteria in my stomach. I was telling the Braves, ‘You need to make a correction to that, because it’s going to affect me in my new deal.’ As you can see today. But the past stays in the past. Now I’ll be glad to be with this team. My ex-teammates are now my teammates.”
The Braves declined comment.
Ayala said he has fully recovered and feels fine physically. Once he returned from the disabled list in early July last year, he posted a 2.73 ERA in 32 games, and his fastball averaged just a tick below 90 miles per hour.
Ayala marveled at how much some of the players he knew in his last stint with the Nationals, which ended in 2008, have changed – Ian Desmond is a star, Ryan Zimmerman is a veteran leader, etc. He laughed when he considered that will again spend a spring training with Jamey Carroll, another 2005 National here on a minor league deal.
“This part of my career, I want to give 110 percent. I feel very good. Today is different times. I want to be consistent. I want to be an example for the new generation of young guys. I’m trying to make the team.”