By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; D5
September, for non-contending major league teams, is mostly about promise and possibilities. It's a time for evaluating prospects and assembling a blueprint for what the club may look like next season, with pitchers often front and center in that process. Such is the condition of the Washington Nationals, and on Tuesday night, Yunesky Maya got his turn to make an impression.
In the right-hander's big league debut, Maya rebounded from an erratic beginning to give Nationals brass reason to consider him in their plans perhaps for longer than just the final weeks of the season. Although his early troubles against the New York Mets contributed to a 4-1 loss before 13,835 at Nationals Park, Maya retired 11 of 12 batters from the second through the fifth innings before departing after 87 pitches.
"It's a dream come true," Maya said through Wil Nieves, a reserve catcher who served as his interpreter. "It is a dream for every player to be up here and pitch in the big leagues. I feel great. I'm really happy with the team and the organization."
Maya's final line included five hits and four earned runs with two walks and three strikeouts. Incorporated into his arsenal were an assortment of breaking balls, a changeup and a fastball in the low 90s. Maya at times pitched backwards too, starting off hitters with breaking stuff to set up his fastball.
That formula began confounding the Mets (68-71) after they built a 4-0 lead though 11/3 innings. Ike Davis was the first to rattle Maya by belting a three-run homer in New York's opening at-bats, then rookie pitcher Dillon Gee, also making his major league debut, singled in another run.
From there, Maya's only blemish was a third-inning walk to Davis. Otherwise he was sparkling, albeit against a lineup in which six players began the night batting .233 or lower, including four hitting .189 or worse.
"I was a little bit nervous in the beginning of the game," Maya said. "I left one pitch up, and I paid for it, but like I said, I'm really happy with the team, and hopefully next time I can do better."
Maya's initial foray in the majors came after the Nationals (60-79) recalled him from Class AAA Syracuse on Tuesday, then installed him as the starter in the spot that had belonged to Scott Olsen, now a member of the bullpen. But perhaps more intriguing is the origin of Maya's journey to baseball's highest level before he arrived in the nation's capital.
That would be Cuba, where Maya during his six-year career with Pinar del Rio Vegueros of the Cuban National Series went 48-29 with a 2.51 ERA. Last year Maya posted a 13-4 record that included seven complete games and a 2.22 ERA. Those numbers were good enough to win Cuba's equivalent of the Cy Young Award. He also pitched for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and last year, compiling a 0.87 ERA in 101/3 innings while going 1-1.
Maya's many achievements in Cuba prompted Washington to sign Maya on Aug. 3 to a contract worth $6 million over four years, and his ascent to the majors was brisk. He made all of five starts in the Nationals' farm system, including two with the Chiefs of the International League.
Maya is the latest prospect the Nationals are evaluating as they play out the string during a season that began with playoff rumblings but began to unravel in June. Washington, this past week, also got a glimpse of what appears to be a fixture in the lineup in Danny Espinosa, who capped his first week in the big leagues with six RBI and two homers, including a grand slam, in Monday's 13-3 victory over the Mets.
Although Maya's debut didn't resonate to that degree, he gave Washington some indication after an unsettled first inning that he indeed may belong in the rotation for the long haul.
"I thought he threw pretty good," Washington Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Seemed like he had a little better command, a little better rotation getting his breaking ball down below the knees. Third and fourth inning, fifth inning, he got just much better location with his breaking ball and pitched in effectively a little more, got some strike calls, just got better as it went along, but the damage was done."
Maya's capable outing, however, didn't match that of his Mets counterpart, who carried a no-hitter through five innings and left after seven having yielded two hits and one run. Gee came up from Class AAA Buffalo on Monday after compiling 165 strikeouts. That mark was tops in all of Class AAA and set the Buffalo modern-day record for strikeouts in a season.
Willie Harris's homer to lead off the sixth broke up Gee's no-hit bid, but it was the lone highlight against the right-hander who in the fourth struck out Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn all swinging. The Nationals later put runners on the corners in the bottom of the ninth with one out, but that threat ended when pinch hitter Ivan Rodriguez grounded into a game-ending double play and prevented Washington from winning four straight for the first time this season.
"He pitched a very good ballgame," Riggleman said of Gee. "Kept the ball down, quick innings, threw strikes, and we're swinging at strikes. They made plays. He was just extremely effective. I really don't know what else to say."