Maya Rebounds With Standout Winter

The Yunesky Maya who pitched his first 26 major league innings for the Nationals this past season might not be the real Yunesky Maya, if this winter's results are any indication.

The 29-year-old Cuban righthander was dominating the Dominican League and showing why he'll be given ample opportunity to grab a place in a Washington rotation that includes countryman and 1997 World Series MVP Livan Hernandez. While Maya has two arm angles and throws a slow breaking ball that resembles the one thrown by Hernandez, it's the newcomer's fastball that is leaving the largest impression.

"He's trusting his fastball more, and his velocity is up (from 88-91 mph) to 93 or above," Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia said. "He's not scared, plus he has great mound presence. He's working on commanding his fastball to the inner half.

"On top of that it's a different environment in the big leagues from Cuba. You don't show emotions (in the majors), and that's something he's getting used to."

With the Leones del Escogido, Maya was 4-2, 1.32 with 42 strikeouts in 41 innings. He had allowed just nine walks, 27 hits and six earned runs. That was what DiPuglia had in mind when he scouted Maya, who went 13-4, 2.22 with seven complete games in his final season in the Cuban National Series. In six seasons with Pinar del Rio, he was 48-29, 2.51.

Maya won his league's equivalent of the Cy Young award in his final campaign in Cuba, but he was expelled from the national team in the summer of 2009. By September, he defected to the Dominican Republic. After more than a year away from competition, he pitched 21 minor league innings before going 0-3, 5.88 with 12 strikeouts, 11 walks and 30 hits allowed in those 26 innings with Washington.

That, farm director Doug Harris says, was not a true representation of the pitcher who had an ERA of 0.87 while working 10 innings for Cuba over the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.

Not only did Maya battle a blister problem in his one start with high Class A Potomac—when he gave up six runs in four innings before moving up to Triple-A Syracuse anyway—but he also had the challenge of pitching after the long layoff.
Maya went 0-0, 1.29 in seven innings in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and 1-1, 0.87 in 10 innings in Triple-A. Maya struck out nine and walked five in his 10 innings with the Chiefs. In all, he made five starts in the minors before adding five starts in the majors.

Maya went at least five innings in all but one of his starts with the Nationals but is still looking to claim his first major league victory. His best outing with the Nationals was his last, when he yielded two earned runs on six hits over five innings while striking out four and walking one.

"Our schedule with him was very aggressive," Harris said. "He was just getting into shape since he hadn't pitched in such a long time. To ask anybody to sit like that, where all he had done for so long was side work, he really did a nice job."

It was at one of those side sessions where DiPuglia saw enough for the Nationals to give the 5-foot-11 Maya a four-year, $6 million contract.

Professional scouting director Bill Singer and director of player procurement Kasey McKeon also were familiar with Maya, so Washington had enough history with Maya to make him a winning offer,

"I was able to see him pitch at our academy in the Dominican, but really it was only a bullpen-type session," DiPuglia said. "He's a pretty polished man who works hard, so I knew what I was looking at. He just had to fill in all the blanks correctly, and he did."

DiPuglia said Maya has three breaking balls: an ultra-slow pitch like Hernandez's, one that's a little bit below normal speed and one that's 73-74 mph with downward-type movement. Maya also has "an average to plus changeup and is a plus fielder," DiPuglia says.

Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty said Maya also is working hard at learning English. A fluent Spanish-speaking catching combination of Ivan Rodriguez, Wilson Ramos and perhaps Jesus Flores also should ease Maya's transition when he enters his rookie season.

"Every time Yunesky pitched for us, he got better," McCatty said. "To me, he was a guy who hadn't pitched in so long and he was under the microscope, so to speak. But he learned when it's a better time to use that big, slow curve. You can only throw it a few times, and he improved with it each time out. He really learned a lot in a short time.

"I saw some DVDs of him from the World Baseball Classic, and he was up to 93 miles per hour. He's throwing pretty good this winter, striking people out, but really there's not much difference between 90 and 93. It's the location of it that matters, and he's improving there, too."