VIERA, Fla. - Hello from the press box at Space Coast Stadium on a beautiful sunny, 79-degree day in Viera, Fla.
I’m not rubbing it in, I swear. Just updating everyone on the current climate here on the east coast of Florida. (OK, I’m rubbing it in a little bit. Sorry about that.)
The Nationals’ spring facilities are very much the way I remember them from the last two seasons. Minor changes have been made here and there - for one, there’s a new plaque with the Nationals logo and the words “Performance, Excellence, Accountability” encircled around it outside the home clubhouse. But the stadium and setup hasn’t changed too much in the last year based on a brief glimpse around the complex.
I got to the facilities just after noon, and by then, most of the pitchers and catchers who had been taking part in throwing sessions had left for the day. I did see right-hander Drew Storen (who took off a couple of minutes after I arrived to take part in his solo photo shoot in full uniform, the one that will serve as his headshot all season), left-handers Ross Detwiler and Xavier Cedeno, and catchers Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon and Chris Snyder.
Shortstop Ian Desmond is also here early, getting in well before position players are scheduled to report on Feb. 18. Desmond lives in Florida, so he decided to pop on over ahead of time to get some extra work in before the full team arrives.
I also had a chance to catch up with right-handed reliever Luis Ayala, who signed a minor league deal with the Nationals last Friday and walked into the Nats clubhouse carrying his gear in an Orioles equipment bag. Ayala said that he had offers from a couple of other teams, including the Phillies and Tigers, but decided to rejoin the Nats. The now 36-year-old righty broke into the majors with the Expos in 2003, and played with the Nats in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
“I feel really happy to be back with my old team, especially in this part of my career,” Ayala said. “I had a couple teams interested, but I picked the best team for me. I remember the good times here. I already saw a couple guys that (were) young guys when I was here. I’m so happy to be a part of the Nationals.”
Not only will Ayala be in the same clubhouse with two other 2005 Nats this spring in Ryan Zimmerman and Jamey Carroll, but he also remembers a few guys that were with the organization a handful of years ago. Detwiler is one of them; the 2007 first-round pick made one big league appearance with the Nationals the year that he was drafted and then was in big league camp along with Ayala in 2008.
“I remember the first years,” Ayala said. “Now I come into the clubhouse and see a couple friends, couple ex-teammates that I remember when I was a guy in the minor league system. I said, ‘Damn, time goes so fast right now.’ But it’s time to be a part of the Nationals, to try to make the team.”
Making the team is certainly within the realm of possibility for Ayala, despite the fact that he’s in camp as a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract. Ayala posted a 3.27 ERA last season between the Orioles and Braves, giving him three straight seasons with an ERA under 3.30, and while he’s now in his mid-30s, he’s got a pretty solid track record. He started off slowly with the O’s last season and was traded to Atlanta for a minor leaguer, but put up a 2.90 ERA in 37 games with the Braves.
Ayala will be battling with a lengthy list of relievers (Ryan Mattheus, Cedeno, Ross Ohlendorf, Tanner Roark, Christian Garcia, Manny Delcarmen and Erik Davis among them) for a spot in the Nats bullpen, but he isn’t fazed by the competition. In fact, he seems to welcome it.
“I think any place I can go, (it’s the) same deal,” Ayala said. “You need to fight for a spot. For me, it doesn’t matter if I got a guaranteed contract or a minor league (deal). I mean, every year the same. I just try to come into spring to try to get a spot. It doesn’t matter if I be on the (40-man) roster or no. Now I know it’s different. I’m not on the roster, but I was coming with the same mentality every year when I was in spring training, to fight for a spot and fight for my job.”