- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. — Washington Nationals reliever Luis Ayala likely will open the season on the disabled list, his surgically repaired right elbow not yet ready to withstand the daily rigors of the major leagues.

“I think at this point, where he is, I think he starts the year on the disabled list,” general manager Jim Bowden said before yesterday’s exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ayala, who had ligament replacement surgery performed March 30, had been hoping to return to the major leagues one year later. But as is often the case with Tommy John surgery patients, the recovery time can extend well beyond 12 months.

Ayala has been throwing in the bullpen but has yet to appear in a spring training game. Manager Manny Acta had previously said if the 29-year-old right-hander wasn’t able to face major league hitters soon, he wouldn’t have enough time to build up arm strength for the regular season.

“We’re going to be very conservative with Luis,” Bowden said. “Luis is an impact setup reliever in the big leagues. He’s in our long-term plan. We have to get him healthy. We’re not going to put him in a situation where we rush him to the big leagues where he could pitch back-to-back [days]. That’s just now how you bring him back.”

Until Ayala returns, Acta will look to right-handers Jon Rauch and Ryan Wagner as his primary setup men.

Church struggles

Ryan Church had another rough day at the plate in the Nationals’ 2-2, 10-inning tie. The outfielder went 0-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout, and his spring batting average dropped to .160.

Church is admittedly frustrated by his struggles at the plate, but he doesn’t think it will take much to get back on track.

“I feel like I’m on the brink of getting right there,” he said. “I’m putting together quality swings, attacking the ball and seeing it and laying off that [junk] I usually swing at in the dirt. I’m just missing pitches. It’s not time really to start forcing it. I want to get hits and see results, but if I’m having quality at-bats … things will start falling for me.”

Acta, who continues to keep pressure off Church by saying he will be his starting left fielder, planned to analyze video with the player and hitting coach Mitchell Page to see whether there’s a mechanical flaw. Acta thinks Church’s stance might be too closed.

Guzman at short

Cristian Guzman played five innings at shortstop yesterday, his first action in the field against major league competition this spring.

Guzman, who is returning from major shoulder surgery, successfully handled the only two balls hit to him and didn’t need to throw with any force. Acta, though, said he has no worries about the shortstop’s health after seeing him throw in the Dominican Republic over the winter.

“Guzman is fine, guys,” the manager said. “The only reason why he has been slowed down a little bit in spring training is because he came over with tendinitis from all the work he did in the Dominican. I already saw Guzman in January letting the ball loose. He doesn’t concern me.”

Guzman, who is due to play seven innings at shortstop tomorrow, wouldn’t speak to reporters following the game.

Extra bases

Second baseman Felipe Lopez was due to be in the lineup but missed the team bus from Viera after hitting traffic near his home in Orlando. Lopez offered to drive to Jupiter himself, but Acta told him just to take the day off. …

The Nationals plan to make their next round of roster cuts following tonight’s split-squad games against the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers.

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