Zuckerman: Maya Struggles Early, Improves Late

Zuckerman: Maya Struggles Early, Improves Late
September 8, 2010, 1:51 am
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010 11:18pm

By Mark Zuckerman

Yunesky Maya had been dreaming of this moment for years. All the time he spent pitching in the Cuban National Series, hoping to one day flee his native country and throw in a major-league ballpark in the United States, had been worth it. Here he was, on the mound at Nationals Park, the New York Mets in the opposing dugout.

And then, four batters into his big-league career, Ike Davis was circling the bases following a towering home run, and Maya and the Washington Nationals were trailing 3-0.

Not the way Maya had envisioned this all playing out while lying in bed in Cuba, dreaming of a life he hoped he'd experience.

By the end of the night Tuesday, though, Maya had righted his ship. Yes, he still was charged with the loss in the Mets' 4-1 victory. But over his final four innings of work, he established his ability to get big-league hitters out with a vast assortment of pitches and impressed his new employers in the process."He kind of pitched as advertised," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He got better as he went along, though. I think if he had been that sharp ... out of the get-go, maybe he only gives up a run or two."

As ugly as the start to Maya's night was -- four runs and five hits allowed after only nine batters faced -- the rest of his outing was encouraging for a Nationals club that handed the 29-year-old a four-year contract in July. He retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, striking out three and leaving on a high note.

"It's the first game. I was a little bit nervous," Maya said through teammate Wil Nieves, who translated. "I gained a lot of experience from this game, and hopefully it's going to be the first one of many. ... Hopefully it's going to be one of many games I'm going to be pitching with this team, so I can help them this year and next year, too."

If Maya becomes a successful starter for the Nationals, he'll do so because of an ability to throw any of at least four pitches in his arsenal for strikes. He put them all on display Tuesday night, often mixing in more curveballs, sliders and changeups than fastballs.

Actually, Maya was at his best when pitching "backwards," using his offspeed stuff early in the count to set up his fastball. With a flat fastball that only registers in the low 90s, he relies on all his other stuff to keep hitters off-balance.

It just took Maya and rookie catcher Wilson Ramos a couple of innings Tuesday to figure that out. Maya threw first-pitch fastballs to seven of the first nine New York batters he faced; six of them wound up reaching base. But he started only three of the final 12 batters he faced with fastballs; only one of them reached safely.

"It's definitely important to have those breaking balls working," he said. "If you only throw your fastball, you're going to get hit. I'm just going to keep working on it. It's really important to throw those breaking balls and to locate them."

Maya's deep repertoire worked during his brief stint in the minors; in five combined starts between the rookie Gulf Coast League, Class A Potomac and Class AAA Syracuse, he posted a 3.38 ERA and held opponents to a .225 batting average.

"He's got pretty good stuff," said Ramos, who saw but never caught Maya at Syracuse. "He has to work hard and try to get more experience. This level, every pitcher has to have good command."

Maya's counterpart Tuesday night, Dillon Gee, had no trouble in his big-league debut. The 24-year-old Mets right-hander tossed five no-hit innings until Willie Harris thwarted history by homering to lead off the sixth.

Gee, a 21st round pick in the 2007 draft out of the University of Texas-Arlington, may or may not have a future in New York's rotation. Maya, though, figures to be a part of the Nationals' pitching staff in 2011 and beyond.

His big-league debut may not have played out exactly as he always hoped, but he emerged from Tuesday night's loss relieved to put this one behind him and determined to turn in a better performance next time around.

"It's a dream come true," he said. "It is a dream for every player to be up here and pitch in the big leagues. ... I was a little bit nervous in the beginning of the game. That first inning, I left one pitch up and I paid for it. But like I said, I'm really happy with the team. Hopefully next time I can do better and give a win to the team."

Mark Zuckerman covered the Nationals for The Washington Times from 2005-09. In addition to regular work this season for CSNwashington.com, he also covers the team at www.natsinsider.com. Email Mark at zuckerman12@gmail.com.