By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 12:43 AM
VIERA, FLA. - Standing in front of his locker inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse, with a black messenger bag slung over his shoulder, Yunesky Maya zipped his white jacket and slipped on tan sunglasses with gradient lenses, which he wore below blonde-frosted, spiky hair.
Maya laughed with Javier Castro, the assistant clubhouse manager who served as his interpreter for a pack of reporters. Before they left, Maya was feeling good enough about himself to offer one more declaration.
"The Cuban kid," he said, "is gonna win 20 games."
For one day, Maya had reason to boast. Wednesday afternoon, in his first big league appearance this year, Maya struck out three Florida Marlins in two scoreless innings, an opening statement in his case to become the Nationals' fifth starter.
Maya, the Cuban right-hander the Nationals signed last season, had delivered a performance that reassured his team and satisfied him.
He was swaggering, confident, maybe even a little cocky. It was a different Maya from the one who, this winter, called the Nationals official who signed him and told him, "I have a lot to prove."
Nationals director of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia landed Maya last summer with a four-year contract worth $6 million. After Maya made five minor league starts shortly after his arrival, American culture a mystery and his family still in Cuba, the Nationals summoned him to the majors.
"He was thrown into the fire really quick," DiPuglia said. "It was a decision we all made as a group."
By the end of the season, they came to regret it. The Nationals lost all five starts Maya made as he compiled a 5.88 ERA, walking 11 and striking out 12 in 26 innings. The adjustment to major league baseball rattled him. In Cuba, he prided himself on his aggression, but smaller strike zones in the majors made his style appear timid. He pitched "backwards" in Cuba, breaking balls early in counts and fastballs late, and major leaguers swallowed that strategy whole.
The circumstances left Maya, 29, little chance at success. But his disappointing season left him determined, not dejected. When Maya phoned DiPuglia this winter, he told him he wanted to get into the best shape of his life. He requested to pitch in winter ball, and then he asked if he could pitch in the playoffs. Maya punched up a 1.32 ERA in 41 innings. The Dominican Winter League named him its pitcher of the year.
"He's a confident guy on the mound," DiPuglia said. "He was upset with the way he pitched last year. He likes to compete. He wants to be good."
Said Maya: "I gave the opportunity to myself in winter to come out and show what I got. That really helped me a lot to come prepared for spring training. I feel 100 percent different. I feel 100 percent, with God willing, that Maya will be ready to go."
On Wednesday, Maya seized his first chance to prove his winter had changed. Maya worked with a confidence unseen last season. "He just had a really good pace," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Today was markedly different than what it was."
The Nationals told him to trust his fastball, to throw it inside and for strikes early in the count. He constantly worked ahead, throwing 18 strikes in just 28 pitches to seven batters.
"He's a guy that is not afraid to go after a hitter," catcher Jesus Flores said.
Maya threw his fastball between 87 and 90 mph, not quite as fast as DiPuglia saw when he scouted him.
But his variety of pitches made it seem harder. He threw his curve with more velocity than last year, the way DiPuglia wants him to throw it. His two-seam fastball, which he can pinpoint to either side of the plate, possessed the sinking motion DiPuglia first noticed years ago, when Maya was the best pitcher in Cuba.
He also mixed in a slider, which moves across the plate, as opposed to the curve, which bites down.
"You can be happy back there calling anything you want," Flores said.
So while Maya didn't have his full velocity, he still flummoxed the Marlins. He struck out Wes Helms and Scott Cousins in his first inning, then struck out Dwayne Wise to end his second. In his first 10 pitches, the Marlins swung and missed four times. Wise also went down hacking.
When Maya found trouble, he validated his reputation as an excellent fielder.
Bryan Petersen reached on a leadoff single in the fifth, Maya's second inning. The next batter, John Raynor, dribbled a grounder back to Maya. He fielded it, spun and fired a perfect throw to start a 1-6-3 double play. Sometimes during pitcher's fielding drills, for fun, Maya will glove a comebacker between his legs.
Maya's family still resides in Cuba, and he keeps pictures of them in his locker. At night here, he plays dominoes with fellow Cuban Livan Hernandez and Michael Tejera, a minor league coach. He is in a good place, and the Nationals have reason to think it will only get better.
"It's early," DiPuglia said. "But I think he's back on track to what we saw when he was an international free agent. That's why we signed him."