Ayala Arrives to Help Relieve Shaky Mets Bullpen Can New Arrival Strengthen Mets' Pennant Run?
FLUSHING, NY— A blur of white came up-and-in, knocking Omar Infante to the ground.
The first pitch Luis Ayala threw as a Met was a ball. But the 93 mile-perhour brush-back pitch still garnered a strong ovation from the Shea Stadium crowd.
The newest member of the Mets bullpen then got down to business, helping his new club escape a jam by inducing two pop outs to escape the seventh inning last Tuesday night. Carlos Delgado capitalized on that effort, drilling a two-run bases loaded double in the eighth as part of a fiverun inning in a 7-3 victory over Atlanta.
Delgado's late heroics were made possible by Ayala's stellar debut. Atlanta put runners on the corners with one out in the seventh to chase starter Oliver Perez, prompting Mets manager Jerry Manuel to summon Ayala to keep the deficit at 3-2.
Ayala forced Infante to fly out to second before falling behind Brian Mc- Cann 2-0. Two fastballs later, McCann flew out to left, ending the threat that helped keep the Mets 1 ½ games up over Philadelphia entering Wednesday.
"Two middle of the order guys…that was very big," Manuel said. "That changed the momentum right there. That was the turning point of the game, getting us out of that without allowing a run."
After shipping Triple-A infielder Anderson Hernandez to Washington in exchange for the 30-year-old righty, Ayala is expected to fortify a bullpen corps that remains the weak link in the absence of Billy Wagner.
"I don't know about the solution," Ayala said about the bullpen's backend, "but I try to do my job."
But Ayala, who posted a 5.77 ERA in 62 appearances for the Nationals, comes with question marks as he tries to add depth to a struggling unit that includes fellow struggling right-handers Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez and Joe Smith along with southpaws Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis.
Instead, the Mets are hoping they are getting the Ayala who recorded a stellar 3.19 ERA in 44 appearances in 2006. The 30-year-old veteran said he will try to keep everything the same even if his appearances will be more pressure-packed then they were for the last-place Nationals.
"They're fighting for first place, so I'm going to do my best to clear my mind and try to help the bullpen," Ayala said following the trade.
Wagner's return from an arm injury is still in doubt, especially after the club issued a release saying the closer was re-evaluated at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. Wagner, who has been on the disabled list since Aug. 5, continues to have swelling and pain in his elbow.
Wagner's absence puts a bigger burden on Ayala, who missed all of 2006 following ligament replacement surgery. That procedure was required after the five-year veteran injured his arm pitching for his native Mexico in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.
Ayala responded with a stellar 2007 rebound campaign before another setback. He was injured on a holiday hunting trip in December when he was accidently hit in the upper left forearm by a shotgun pellet in Los Mochis, Mexico.
He recovered enough to start the season in Washington, posting 19 holds and 36 strike outs in 57 2/3 innings before coming to New York.
The 6-1, 198-pound hurler knew Mets general manager Omar Minaya when the the latter was the GM of the Expos organization. Minaya reacquired his former player, moving him from the NL East's perennial doormat to a club vying for the division's title.
"It's exciting," Ayala said. I don't put pressure on myself. I'm trying to make my pitches and that's it."
The Mets are still struggling to close games as Wagner recovers. The team's only All-Star felt discomfort after throwing a simulated game Saturday. An MRI revealed additional inflammation in his left elbow; bad news for a bullpen that entered Tuesday with the major league's fourth-highest bullpen ERA (4.36 ERA.
Four different pitches—Heilman (three), Feliciano (two), Schoeneweis and Brian Stokes (one)— have already recorded saves in Wagner's absence.
"What we have to do is make the most out of what we have and hope that at some point, Billy comes back and it will be like acquiring a guy in a trade," Manuel said.
"We're in a very precious situation with our bullpen, but the good thing is we're in a pennant race. We have to endure."