VIERA, Fla. -- There is always a smile on Nationals reliever Luis Ayala's face when one talks to him about Yankees great Mariano Rivera. If not for Rivera, there is no telling where Ayala would be right now.
Going into the 2011 season, it appeared that Ayala was near the end of his career. In the previous three years, he was having problems with his sinker, which became hittable more often than not. Ayala realized he needed another pitch to get hitters out consistently. He was in his early 30s and he figured he wasn't too old to learn a new pitch.
"I always relied on my sinker and the pitch was not the same. I had to start working on another pitch," said the 36-year-old Ayala on Monday afternoon.
Then he signed with the Yankees and looked to Rivera to teach him the cutter. It has been smooth sailing for Ayala ever since. During the last three seasons with the Yankees, Orioles and Braves, Ayala is a combined 9-8 with a 2.58 ERA with 25 holds and 42 games finished. While he still relies on his sinker, Ayala has used the cutter a little over 15 percent of the time in those three years, according to Fangraphs.com.
"I decided to talk to him in the 'pen and I wanted to practice throwing the cutter. The last few years, the cutters have been working so well," Ayala said. "I still love baseball. Every year, you need to learn new things during your career."
Because the pitch revived his career, Ayala would like to pitch in the big leagues as long as he can.
"I feel healthy. I want to play for many years -- like 10 more years," Ayala said. "But it's about working. How long do you want to be here? How long do you want to stay healthy? Sometimes you can't control those things. The most important thing is I'm happy to be with the Nationals. I'm trying to make the team. I have to come in every day and do the best for this team."
Last month, Ayala signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals, and he hopes to make the team as a middle or late-inning reliever. In four games so far, Ayala has allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings, and all four runs came against the Braves on March 4.
Talk to manager Matt Williams and he will tell you that Ayala is doing a good job. In fact, Williams takes the blame for Ayala allowing those four runs against Atlanta.
"His bad outing was because of his manager," Williams said. "I put him in a tough spot because he could handle it. He could also throw a double-play ball there to get us out of the inning.
"He is one of those guys who has been around the block more than once. He knows how to pitch, knows how to change speeds and how to get hitters out. That's all. He has looked good."
Ayala would not be where he is right now without Rivera, who retired after last season. Ayala called Rivera the greatest closer of all time.
"He is a really good guy," Ayala said. "We can see him pitch again, but only in videos."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.