Ayala Approaching Comeback

With the return of one of its best setup men just on the horizon, the future of the Nationals' bullpen looks as bright as ever. Luis Ayala is currently rehabbing with Columbus after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is expecting to soon make his long-awaited return to Washington.

On March 16, 2006, Luis Ayala was pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic when he injured his elbow in a 2-1 victory over the U.S. After almost a year and a half on the shelf, Ayala's arm appears to be just about ready for the big leagues.

"Right now, I'm just focusing on my rehab 100 percent," Ayala said. "I'm doing my workouts, doing all the things to take care of my arm right now, and working with the trainer. And when they want me to pitch, I'll come in handy and show all my stuff."

From 2003 to 2005, Ayala was one of the most dependable setup men in all of baseball. With Montreal in 2003, he went 10-3 with five saves and a 2.92 ERA. Although the win-loss record wasn't as astounding in 2004, he lowered his ERA to 2.69 and then again lowered it to 2.66 in 2005 when he posted an 8-7 record for Washington. But after his surgery on March 30, 2006, it has been a long road back for the right-hander.

"I spent about seven months in Phoenix at a special clinic and worked with a guy to help my arm," Ayala said. "I went to Mexico for about a month and then flew to Washington for the month of September. I was working with the trainer there. This year, I came into spring training and continued working and I felt good in spring training. At the end of spring training they decided to give me more time. They gave me the rehab assignment to pitch in Potomac and then to pitch here."

When a pitcher is forced to have ulnar-collateral ligament reconstruction, better known as Tommy John surgery, there is sometimes no other option but to retire from the game. However, this was not the case for Ayala. His desire to return was never questioned and he has been working on getting all of his pitches back to where they were before the injury. Nevertheless, Ayala said this was still undoubtedly the worst injury of his career.

"Yeah and I've played for awhile—11 years. So it's a long time because I've spent about a year and a half with this injury," the Mexican native said. "Right now, I'm working on trying to come back. I'm working on all my stuff: fastball, breaking ball, changeup, and sinker. I'm working on all of my pitches."

Washington manager Manny Acta was determined to take it slow with Ayala, and so far, this extra time away from the Nationals has been very beneficial for Ayala. While on his rehab tour through the minors, Ayala has shown very few signs of difficulty. He made three appearances at Single-A Potomac, allowing only one hit, one walk, and no runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Ayala pitched two scoreless innings for Columbus against Syracuse on June 9 and gave up only one hit. Although he served up a home run to Syracuse outfielder John-Ford Griffin on a hanging breaking ball in his latest appearance Tuesday, he was able to work his way out of the inning with the Clippers still leading 5-4.

At only 29 years old, Ayala likely has some of his best years in the majors ahead of him. He has had a lot of perseverance with this injury and he said that he his return is just around the corner.

"I'm close," Ayala said. "I feel great. I'm trying to do my best to come back as fast as possible. When I come back, I will be coming back strong. I am working toward that. I'm trying to be ready for the rest of the season."

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