Yunesky Maya impresses in first appearance at Washington Nationals spring training

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."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company