Friday, August 5, 2011

A Reliever Reborn in the Bronx

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rafael Soriano is gone, for the moment, shut down until the All-Star break to let his $35 million elbow rest up and heal.

Getty Images

Luis Ayala, above, against the Orioles on May 18.

Joba Chamberlain will move into Soriano's eighth-inning setup role, with David Robertson behind him. Big enough names, both. Then there is the man taking Robertson's job, a name that only meant something to fans of the defunct Montreal Expos—and hasn't been heard much at all since 2006.

Luis Ayala thinks it's time to change that.

"I feel like Ayala is back," he said with a grin.

From 2003 to 2005, Ayala was the crack setup man for the Montreal Expos and then the Washington Nationals. He posted sub-3.00 ERAs every year.


Ayala celebrates a win over Venezuela in the 2011 Caribbean Series.

Then, national pride did him in. He joined up with Mexico's team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 and became the first of many cautionary tales about pitchers hurting their arms in the international exhibition.

"There was a time when he was an eighth-inning guy, and then he hurt his [elbow] in the WBC," Yankee manager Joe Girardi said.

Throwing a sinker to his now-teammate Alex Rodriguez, Ayala felt the ligament in his pitching elbow snap. He knew right away it was bad, and he was right. He needed Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and was never the same pitcher.

Ayala struggled through three ugly seasons post-surgery, as his velocity and stuff failed to return to pre-surgery levels. He closed some games for the Mets, and even returned to pitch for Mexico in the 2009 WBC, but his ERAs were nearly double his glory years.

He took all of 2010 off, to rehab and strengthen his arm and shoulder in Arizona, then pitched in Mexico in winter ball. There, he realized his pitches had improved, with the old bite and break returning to his sinker. The years struggling without his old pitches also taught him to use them better, he said.

"I think now I've got more spin," Ayala said. "The velocity is the same, but I've learned a lot more things about pitching."

Now 33, Ayala came to camp as a flier, a nobody, an extra guy. But he impressed enough that when injuries struck the Yankee bullpen, he was named the final addition to the major league squad.

"I felt really good about this, because it's not easy to come back to the big leagues," Ayala said. "I just came here, worked hard and tried to open some eyes. I finally opened the Yankees' eyes."

Used initially in mop-up duty, Ayala has gained more responsibility as he has proven himself, and Soriano has been absent. Ayala now has a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings with New York and is part of a bullpen that has the best ERA in the American League despite getting nothing from Soriano.

He's an extra part, but has become a valuable one.

"I've got confidence in the guys we have," General Manager Brian Cashman said. "I think Robertson, Chamberlain, and [Boone] Logan are very well- equipped to handle the load leading in. We were trying to give Girardi some other choices with the Ayalas of the world—anybody we can find."

The jovial Ayala knows his place in the grand scheme. On a given day, he can be found sitting among the plus-sized jeans in Bartolo Colon's locker, joking in Spanish or chatting in English with Boone Logan, a Texan.

"He's been great. I think he brings a lot to the table, and I'm not just talking baseball-wise. His personality's tremendous," Chamberlain said.

He's a journeyman, yes, but the fact that he was once a premier pitcher gives him a certain cache, Chamberlain said.

"He's been in the league for seven years, he's pitched, closed games for the Mets. He's been able to do a lot of roles. He's got a great arm and a great attitude about pitching, attacking hitters," Chamberlain said.

Ayala has no illusions. He's not going to be Soriano, nor is he going to be himself, circa 2004. He plans and hopes to be a contributor, and for the moment, that's enough.

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