- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Luis Ayala, the top setup man in the Washington Nationals bullpen, will miss the entire 2006 season after spraining a ligament in his throwing elbow during the World Baseball Classic, an injury that left the club furious at organizers of the event for letting the right-hander participate in the first place.

Ayala, who took himself out of Thursday night’s game between Mexico and the United States in the ninth inning after complaining of elbow pain, underwent an MRI yesterday in Los Angeles that revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament. He will undergo ligament replacement surgery (commonly referred to as “Tommy John surgery”) sometime in the next two weeks and won’t return to a major league mound for 12 to 18 months.

Though doctors believe Ayala sustained the injury while making his six pitches to Team USA slugger Alex Rodriguez, he did have pre-existing elbow concerns. Ayala underwent surgery in October to remove a bone spur in his right elbow, and though he had been declared healthy by team doctors, the club twice petitioned Major League Baseball to prevent him from pitching in the tournament.

MLB denied the request, and Ayala chose to play for Mexico, much to the chagrin of club officials.

“The player wanted to play, so he has complicity in this for not listening to what the doctors told him,” Nationals president Tony Tavares said. “And baseball and the players union has complicity in this as well. Everybody that is involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves.”

Ayala, 28, went 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 68 appearances last season, further establishing himself as one of baseball’s top setup men. But he had to be shut down in September when he complained of elbow pain, and though the offseason surgery left him healthy, he would have been brought along slowly this spring had he been in camp.

When Ayala insisted on playing for Mexico in the WBC, Washington unsuccessfully petitioned MLB to keep him out.

“The argument was he was coming off surgery, and he had some soreness in the elbow,” Nationals trainer Tim Abraham said. “That was our main concern when he got here, and we just felt like he should have a slow progression through his activities.”

MLB denied the request, though, and Ayala left the club March2 to join the Mexican national team. Though he was being watched closely there, the club does not believe he went through the same program he would have had he remained in Florida.

“Had he gone into the training program that we had for him, we weren’t going to pitch him in a game until March 25 or so,” Tavares said. “And all of this got accelerated for the sake of Mexico. We question their team trainers and how they handled our player.”

Ayala appeared in only one WBC game before Thursday, throwing just six pitches. Then he was summoned from the bullpen with Mexico clinging to a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning and Rodriguez at the plate. He wound up walking Rodriguez on six pitches and, upon feeling pain in his elbow, called for trainers to remove him from the game.

“I think he was being pressured to pitch for his country,” said Joe Longo, Ayala’s agent. “I think the pressure is what made this guy pitch in a fairly intense situation last night. How could he say no? He’s just not that kind of guy.”

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden called upon MLB organizers to enforce stricter rules in the future regarding injured players in the WBC.

“We understand that injuries are part of the game, and we understand that injuries will occur during the Classic and must be accepted as they would be in spring training,” Bowden said. “However, it’s disappointing when the medical staff, the baseball personnel staff and the president of the club appeal twice and are overruled. … I would recommend in the future that if a player has surgery in the year prior to the world classic, the major league club has the right to block the player from participating for medical reasons.”

Longo concurred, saying Ayala’s case could set a bad precedent for future WBC participants.

“If Luis doesn’t recover from this, he’ll be the guy that other guys point to for why they don’t want to play in this tournament.”

Ayala’s loss comes as a crushing blow to a Nationals team that already has had two other players undergo surgery this spring (pitcher Brian Lawrence and utilityman Robert Fick) and could have shortstop Cristian Guzman join the club in the next two weeks.

Manager Frank Robinson said he will call upon several other relievers (Gary Majewski and Felix Rodriguez chief among them) to fill the hole vacated by Ayala.

“No one’s going to be able to take his place,” Robinson said. “We’ll have to fill the gap, but he was just unbelievable. I just felt very comfortable with him out there on the mound.”

In fact, the Nationals felt so comfortable with Ayala on the mound that they gave him a two-year, $2.2million contract in January. He’s due to make $900,000 this season, though club sources said insurance will cover some of that now that he’s injured.

Note — The Nationals reassigned pitchers Santiago Ramirez, Anastacio Martinez and Joe Horgan and shortstop Ian Desmond to their minor league camp following yesterday’s exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles.

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