Ten runs in two innings got the Washington Nationals back into today's game and gave them a lead as they rallied from a 14-6 deficit with five runs in the fifth and five more in sixth inning of what ended up a 16-15 win over the Atlanta Braves. The one-run lead was in serious jeopardy in the eighth, however, when the defending NL East Champs loaded the bases with three straight one-out singles off Nats' bullpen hopeful Clay Hensley, who was in his second frame of relief work.
New Nationals' manager Matt Williams went to his bullpen for 36-year-old, nine-year veteran Luis Ayala, the former Montreal Expo and National who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves last season.
"He's the perfect guy for that situation regardless of what time of year it is," Williams said, "because the ball gets on the ground when he pitches. So we wanted to give ourselves a chance there. We stretched Clay a little bit. He had a really good first inning of work and then we stretched him out a little bit. But if you have that situation, [Ayala is] the perfect guy to go to and you get a lot of that."
One pitch to veteran infielder Tyler Greene got Ayala an inning-ending 5-3 DP and the Nationals turned to the veteran reliever again for the ninth inning, which he completed to earn a Grapefruit League save.
Ayala made 39 appearances between Baltimore and Atlanta last season, posting a combined 3.27 ERA and a 3.68 FIP in 33 IP in which he walked 13 (3.55 BB/9) and struck out 22 (6.00 K/9). He finished the season at +0.1 fWAR with a career-best 58.9% ground ball percentage, up from 50.0% in 2011 and 49.0% in 2012.
Ayala's versatility appeals to the Nationals as Williams explained after today's outing. He signed a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training, with, as a source told the Washington Post's James Wagner, "...[the] impression that he’ll make the club."
"He's certainly one of the guys we're considering and he pitched well," Williams said. "He's got experience closing games, seventh, eighth inning, so that's good. It's good to have somebody out there with that type of experience that simply does what he does and trusts that we're going to make the play behind him."
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The Nationals' skipper knows he can turn to Ayala in a tight spot and potentially bring him back out for an extra inning of work if necessary.
"He's a guy that he can have really quick innings too," he explained.
"An aggressive opposition and a ball sinking down and in and a lot of ground balls. So, that's why we're considering him. That's why he's here and it's a perfect situation today for him."
Williams talked last week about what Ayala might bring to the Nationals, who have a number of hard-throwing right and left-handers competing for spots in an already-crowded bullpen.
"He knows himself," the Nats' first-year skipper said. "You spend enough time in the big leagues, you get to know yourself. He knows what he can and can't do. He's able to change speeds within the strike zone. Good fielder. Good athlete. For me, he's a shortstop in a pitcher's body. So he moves well. All those things contribute. But he's one of those guys that has the ability to throw it for a strike when he wants to and a ball when he wants to. That can be effective. Doesn't light up the radar gun, but that's ok. The ball moves. Changes speeds. Changeup. Slider. All of them for a strike."
Can the veteran reliever catch on with the Nationals and keep his major league career going? Or is he more likely to end up in Syracuse as insurance should anything go wrong with one of the Nats' relievers?