Monday, January 09, 2006

Luis, Luis, Oh No Me Gotta Go

Cross another one of the arbitration list. Luis Ayala slides off the arbitration pile with an eminently fair 2-year $2.2 million deal, which buys out next year's arbitration date as well.

For the Nationals, they gain some cost certainty for one of the league's best setup men, ensuring that if he has another dominant season that his pricetag won't quintuple. For Ayala, he gains some financial security, and knows that when he shreds his elbow after Frank sends him out there for fifty of the first thirty-four games, that he'll be well compensated.

Barry's story notes the problems that last season's frequent appearances eventually had on him. But Barry's missing the larger point. It wasn't just the 68 games he appeared in last year, but the 81 he appeared in the previous year, and all the innings he logged in Winter Ball (notably as Caribbean World Series Champion, Mexico's closer). Ayala threw a lot of pitches over very few months, and the tendinitis he started reporting in June was a portent to him being completely shut down by the end. Thankfully, Barry gets Ayala's agent to say that everything's ok, and that he'll be ready to go in the Spring.

Ayala's not much of a strikeout pitcher, striking out a respectable, but not really dominant 5.77 batters per 9. He's not even an especially tough pitcher to get a hit from: career .266 batting average allowed, and a surprisingly high .286 last season, especially considering how dominant he appeared to be. Ayala excels because he does two things really well: he doesn't walk many batters (just 2.86 per 9 last year), and he doesn't give up many long balls (a decent .81 per 9 -- and Puerto Rico was a pretty extreme homer park).

When a pitcher throws strikes, doesn't walk batters, and keeps the ball in the park, more often than not, good things will happen.

He's also shown an amazing ability to pitch in a pinch. In 34 bases-loaded ABs, he's allowed just three singles. That's it. Runners in scoring position with two out? Consider them stranded: just a .226 batting average allowed. If there's such a thing as clutch pitching, he's shown it, easily working out of the few jams he's created.

If his arm is healthy, he'll be an essential component to the team. With this team needing to scrap for every run, the importance of a shutdown bullpen arm is magnified -- as we saw when we lacked that arm for most of the second half.

Three Up, Three Down with Luis Ayala

Three up:
#3 -- 5/15 against the Cubs. The Nationals got down early on a rare off start by John Patterson. After the Nationals rallied to take a 5-4 lead in the 6th, thanks to two ground balls rolling between Neifi Perez' high socks, it was time for Ayala to bridge the gap. Two innings later, and one measly two-out single later, he turned over the game to Chad Cordero for the easy Hairston, Patterson, Perez one-run save.

#2 -- 8/18 against the Phillies. With the season sliding off the abyss, the Nats played in Philadelphia in a game they had to have. Down 4-3, Frank handed the keys from John Halama to Luis Ayala in the sixth inning. to face Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. Ayala needed to keep things close. Burrell earned the rare walk. Howard singled to right. No worries for Luis. David Bell earned a chorus of boos with a GIDP, and Todd Pratt followed with a sharp single to the typically unreliable hands of Carlos Baerga. Inning over. With the top of the order due up against a shaky Rheal Cormier, they were sure to scratch out a run. Nope. Ayala held up his end of the bargain a second time, striking out the inning-beginning-but-ending-in-theory Chavez, as part of a quick 1,2,3 inning. The Nats bats exploded for two (yeah, I said exploded) thanks to a leadoff double by Jose Guillen. Ayala got the much-deserved win, and the Nats got an essential W, despite starting the broken-winged Ryan Drese.

#1 -- 8/3 against the Dodgers. Luis pitching two shutout innings is old hat. The Nationals had a one-run lead, which is all Ayala needed most nights. But this one is memorable for Frank's managing, and how Ayala played into it. Luis was sent up to PH for the starting pitcher, Tony Armas, despite the presence of a number of lefties on the bench. Showing us all that Frank knows best (and that Tony's a machine), he singled to center. He came out the next inning, and sliced through the Dodgers' bats, with only one can of corn making it out of the infield. A normal pitcher's night would be over. But not El Mecanico. After Cristian Guzman led off the inning with a single (shocking, I know), Ayala came back out for a second time, and dropped a perfect bunt to first base. Two perfect innings; two perfect plate appearances. One perfect night for Luis.

Three Down:
#3 -- 5/1 against the Mets. Entrusted with a tie game in the eighth inning, he pitched great; then he fell apart. In the ninth inning, the Mets loaded the bases with nobody out before scoring three runs: two on a Carlos Beltran double crushed to left field.

#2 -- 5/13 against the Cubs. It was a tie game when Ayala relieved Loaiza to start the eighth. Aramis Ramirez homered to dead center field on a towering blast that sucked the life out of the non-drooling fans in attendance. Burnitz followed it with a double, and Ayala nailed Dubois with a pitch to bring a rare early hook for Ayala. Both would score, giving Ayala three runs allowed, his season high.

#1 -- 9/1 against the Braves. While I was puttering around Utah, I only saw one game. This was it, unfortunately. Down 7-1, the Nats stormed back to tie the game thanks to two clutch hits by Vinny Castilla. Ayala came out to face MVP-type Gold-Club-Lovin' Andruw Jones. Four pitches later, the game was over while Andruw trotted around the bases, crushing the hopes of Nats fans, again.

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