- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Luis Ayala sat in front of a locker at Space Coast Stadium, his right elbow wrapped in a bandage, trying his best to smile.

It was a fruitless effort. After meeting with members of the Washington Nationals medical staff, the relief pitcher brushed off reporters looking to talk to him, dressed and left the park.

Ayala left behind a ballclub saddened, stunned and furious over the season-ending elbow injury he suffered Thursday night while pitching for his native Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.

While teammates made a point to come over and talk to him, offer him assurances and well-wishes, some couldn’t mask their frustration over the circumstances that led to his demise.

“To see one of your best relievers go down because he wasn’t ready to go, it [ticked] me off a little bit,” said catcher Brian Schneider, who watched Ayala’s injury from the dugout as a member of the United States’ WBC squad. “I know he’s very patriotic and he’s proud to be a Mexican. There’s nothing wrong with that. He wanted to be there for his country. It’s one thing to go there if you’re ready to pitch. It’s another thing to go there if you’re not.”

As far as the Nationals are concerned, Ayala was most definitely not ready to pitch in the WBC, not after spending all winter rehabbing from surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. The club planned to bring the 28-year-old along slowly in spring training and even petitioned Major League Baseball to prevent him from participating in the WBC, only to watch him leave camp to play for Mexico anyway.

So when Ayala (after making six pitches in the ninth inning of Mexico’s 2-1 victory over Team USA) called for a trainer and pulled himself from the game, his major league teammates and coaches knew their worst fears had been realized.

“You could just tell something was wrong,” said Chad Cordero, who was watching from Team USA’s bullpen at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.

An MRI confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Ayala had sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. He’ll undergo “Tommy John surgery” in the next two weeks and isn’t expected to pitch for at least a year.

Nationals officials, most notably president Tony Tavares and general manager Jim Bowden, were furious over the situation. They blasted MLB for turning down both of their petitions to keep Ayala out of the WBC. They blamed the Mexican national team for pressuring Ayala to pitch in the tournament. And they were upset at Ayala himself for insisting on playing despite the team’s pleas to stay in Florida.

Manager Frank Robinson, while disappointed, would not go as far as others yesterday in expressing his anger.

“No, I’m not angry, because this kid wanted to play for his country. You can’t blame him for that,” Robinson said. “I’m sure he got some peer pressure from teammates and from fans and whatever, and he felt like that’s what he wanted to do, and he made a choice. He just happened to have what I call a bad break.

“He didn’t have to be used in that ballgame, matter of fact. But he was, and he went out there. I would hope that if it was bothering him or if he had soreness in that elbow, that he would’ve used better judgment, and said, ‘I can’t pitch.’”

Ayala’s injury is a devastating blow to a Washington club that has already lost starter Brian Lawrence for the season and may soon find out it has lost shortstop Cristian Guzman as well.

The Nationals do have one of baseball’s better bullpens, and they believe they have enough depth stocked up this spring to help offset the loss of their top set-up man. They’ll likely enter the season with a six-man relief corps made up of Cordero (the closer), right-handers Gary Majewski, Felix Rodriguez and Jon Rauch and lefties Joey Eischen and Mike Stanton.

Majewski and Rodriguez will feel the most pressure as the two men likely to take over Ayala’s set-up duties. Both have been successful in the role before. Majewski posted a 2.93 ERA in 79 games last year, and Rodriguez has posted ERAs under 3.50 in four of the last six seasons but neither has earned the kind of trust in their manager that Ayala had.

“When I brought him in the ballgame, I felt very comfortable that he was going to do the job,” Robinson said. “Now that’s gone. That leaves a big void that someone’s going to have to step up.”

Added Schneider: “You can’t lose an Ayala and expect [another] Ayala to come out of nowhere and pitch for us.”

The Nationals would prefer to have the original trotting in from the bullpen all season for them, not an amalgam of other relievers hoping to make up for his loss.

Which explains why so many of Ayala’s teammates were still having a hard time accepting the news yesterday. They felt let down by one of their own, and will suffer as a team because of it.

“People say maybe he learned his lesson,” Schneider said. “Well, I don’t agree with that because that’s not a good lesson to learn. You’re not out for the season to learn a lesson. He should have learned the lesson earlier, knowing that he probably wasn’t ready.”

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