Yunesky Maya, Washington Nationals falter in sixth inning, fall to Atlanta Braves, 5-0

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:13 PM

The questions attached to the heralded arrival of Yunesky Maya have rapidly yielded to more questions. He came from Cuba largely unknown aside from superlatives and past awards won and scouts' whispers. How would he pitch against major leaguers? The Washington Nationals know now his fastball zips in the low-90s. He overpowers no one. He walks fistfuls of batters. He pitches like most of their other starters, only, so far, not quite as effectively.

After Maya's fourth start, a 5-0 loss to the wild card-chasing Atlanta Braves on Saturday before 22,834 at Nationals Park, a new question surfaced: Is this all? On Saturday, Maya allowed five runs - four earned - in 51/3 innings on eight hits, three walks and one strikeout, spoiling his promising beginning with another big inning, the four-run sixth.

Nonetheless, the Nationals are encouraged that Maya - now 0-3 with a 6.43 ERA, 10 walks and eight strikeouts - will become the pitcher they hoped he would be when they signed him to a four-year, $6 million contract. There is more there, they say, ready to emerge once Maya adjusts to his new life and his new league. He is not lost in translation, just momentarily stuck.

"He's got to try and play catch-up," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "The culture shock, everything that he's been through to get to this point, it's been a lot. It's a tough adjustment. He's changing his whole idea how to pitch. Learning in the big leagues can be a tough thing to do. You get exposed fairly quickly."

When Maya arrived with the Nationals, he thought of himself as an aggressive, strike-throwing pitcher. The experience of pitching in international baseball differs wildly from the major leagues. There are expanded strike zones and hitters more willing to chase pitches just outside the edges of the plate.

After his third minor league start and first at Class A Potomac, he reacted with surprise at how patient hitters were - and in Class A, "you can get away with so much crap down there," McCatty said. Those Class A hitters, patient in Maya's eyes, would be shockingly free swingers by major league standards.

And so in Maya's major league starts, his strike-pumping style has translated to apparent nibbling and deep counts. This week, McCatty spoke to Maya, with bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo interpreting, about working faster and pitching with more aggression. "You've got to trust yourself to make pitches," McCatty told him. Maya understood and agreed.

On Saturday, Maya showed progress. In the first inning, he began with eight consecutive strikes and retired the Braves in order on 11 pitches, nine strikes. "I felt like myself," Maya said through catcher-turned-interpreter Wil Nieves. "I felt like I was pitching back home."

The Nationals offered little help as the Braves snapped Washington's first four-game winning streak of the year, gathering six hits all game as Derek Lowe shut them out for five innings.

Circumstances outside Maya's control led to the Braves' first run. Lowe led off the third with a double. With one out, Ian Desmond lost Jason Heyward's pop-up in a treacherous sun. Two batters later, with two outs, Brian McCann grounded to the left side, and "McCann doesn't hit groundballs to the left side of the infield," Manager Jim Riggleman said. Alberto Gonzalez made a diving stop and then an awkward throw from his knees, which Adam Dunn could not corral, allowing Lowe to score.

Maya has provided stretches of success in all of his starts, only to come undone in one inning. On Saturday, it was the sixth. With Atlanta leading, 1-0, Martin Prado walked and moved to second on a wild pitch. Derrek Lee doubled with one out, and Nate McLouth reached on an infield single. Alex Gonzalez roped the first pitch he saw, a hanging slider, deep into the left field seats. That was it for Maya. The Nats trailed, 5-0.

"I'm not mad at the home run," Maya said. "I'm mad at the walk. Throw him a strike, make him hit the ball. Homers will happen. Walks, I can control that."

Maya's postgame reaction proved he is listening to McCatty. Still, it will take time before he is a finished product. Before the game, bullpen coach Jim Lett turned to McCatty and remarked, "Six months ago, he was pitching against Turkey or Holland. Today he's pitching against the Atlanta Braves."

It seems unlikely Maya has been able to unveil his full talents, even aside from the difference in pitching style. He has spent less than a year in America and is living without his family, which remains in Cuba. Maya keeps photographs of them in his locker, including a picture of himself sleeping next to his small child. He wants to learn English, but at the moment he speaks practically none.

"He's gotten better each time," Riggleman said. "I think what he shows us is what he is. It's going to work."

Said Maya: "I have a lot more to show, to prove here. This is the best baseball in the world. Every day, I feel more comfortable. There's always room for improvement. You've got to be positive. I believe I can be successful up here."

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