- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — It has been nearly a year since Luis Ayala last appeared in a competitive baseball game.

Nearly a year since the Mexican reliever, playing for his native country, threw six pitches to Team USA star Alex Rodriguez at the World Baseball Classic and then walked off the field with his right elbow throbbing.

Nearly a year since he underwent ligament replacement surgery and angered his Washington Nationals teammates and bosses by insisting on playing in the international event and risking a season-ending injury like that one.

The wounds — both physically and mentally — appear to have healed. Ayala is healthy and on the verge of returning to the Nationals’ bullpen, and his teammates aren’t holding any grudges against him.

“That was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to pitch in the WBC,” right-hander John Patterson said. “I don’t think anyone’s mad at him.”

But it took some time for Ayala to restore his name in the Washington clubhouse, and he remains reluctant to discuss the situation at all.

“The past is the past. I don’t talk about it,” he said. “I talk about the present. What happened, happened. Right now, I’m ready to move on.”

The Nationals will gladly take him back because when healthy Ayala is one of the top relievers in baseball. From 2003 to 2005, the right-hander made 214 appearances, posted a 2.75 ERA, won 24 games and saved eight.

But he wasn’t any help to Washington while sidelined last year, and the bullpen suffered because of it. With Ayala in 2005, Nationals relievers had a combined 3.55 ERA. Without him in 2006, the number skyrocketed to 4.49.

“[The difference] was real noticeable,” closer Chad Cordero said. “He was the guy who was able to come in for the seventh and eighth innings, give us two strong innings and be able to come back the next day. It’s hard to try and find someone to replace that. I don’t think we ever did.”

The Nationals had planned to be cautious with Ayala when he reported to camp last spring, just months after signing a two-year, $2.2 million extension. He had minor surgery that winter to remove a bone spur from his throwing elbow, and though he felt fine, the club wanted to ease him back into form.

Ayala, though, was determined to pitch in the WBC. Mexican baseball officials and media members put pressure on him to play, and despite several formal requests from the Nationals to keep him out of the tournament for health reasons, Major League Baseball declared he could participate.

So when Ayala’s elbow blew out in only his second appearance, the Nationals’ response ranged from disappointment to sheer rage.

“To see one of your best relievers go down because he wasn’t ready to go, it [ticked] me off a little bit,” catcher Brian Schneider said at the time.

Said then-team president Tony Tavares: “Everybody that is involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves.”

Ayala stayed away from the club for most of the season, making only a few appearances in the clubhouse late in the summer. Still distraught over the circumstances surrounding his injury, he preferred to go through his rehabilitation program in Arizona instead of in Washington.

Doctors told him he could be ready to return to the mound in as little as 12 months, but as most pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery know, it can take more than two years to make a complete recovery.

“You may feel OK after a year,” said Patterson, who had the surgery in 2000. “But in my experience, it was 26 or 27 months before I really started feeling like I was me again.”

Ayala appears to be going against the trend. He reported to camp this spring feeling great and has been throwing regularly in the bullpen and to hitters during live batting practice. Club personnel who have watched him closely say he’s throwing just as well as he did before his surgery.

Pitching coach Randy St. Claire hasn’t scheduled Ayala’s first game appearance yet, but manager Manny Acta expects the 29-year-old to get enough work in to be ready for Opening Day — a faster recovery than most expected.

“I had a feeling he would be back, but I didn’t think he’d be as strong as he is right now,” Cordero said. “It takes a while for that kind of surgery to heal. I figured he might miss at least a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season, but it doesn’t look like it now.”

As Ayala talked about his return yesterday morning, he held out his right arm and extended it completely parallel to the floor. He couldn’t do that a few months ago, but now he can bend and twist his elbow like nothing happened.

He only can hope everyone ultimately forgets that scene of him walking off that mound in Anaheim, Calif., ever happened.

“I feel great,” he said. “I don’t have any problems right now. I’m very excited. I’m working hard to get back out there.”

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