30 Players in 30 Days: Yunesky Maya

Yunesky Maya Nationals.JPGYunesky Maya came to the Nationals with a lot of questions surrounding him. Through 10 games–five Minor League and five Major League starts–many of those questions still remain and will have to wait until the upcoming season to be answered.

This is what we do know about him:

*Scouts from teams such as the Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees and, of course, the Nationals picked up on Maya’s talent while he was stringing together successful performances for the Cuban National team and the Cuban National Series, the country’s MLB counterpart.

*Maya finished the 2008-2009 season second in the National Series with a 2.22 ERA and second in strikeouts behind Reds pitcher, Aroldis Chapman–yes, the guy with the 105-mph, record-breaking fastball.

*Maya won the league’s equivalent to the Cy Young Award. Yes, over that same person named Chapman and Maya would not play another season in Cuba.

*Last year, Maya defected and found himself in a holding ground of sorts–the Dominican Republic–where he would have to wait nine months before being cleared to sign as a free agent in the Majors. The Nationals signed him on July 31.

Yunesky Maya Cuba.jpgMaya lives without his family, who remains in Cuba, and he is still adjusting to the new culture and language barrier. His lack of knowledge of the English language dictates that a fellow player translates every time Pitching Coach Steve McCatty or a member of the media would like to speak with him. His name was misspelled once on his own locker room name plate in the Minors but he didn’t have a way of telling anyone. But through the difficulties, Maya has gotten what he wanted–a four-year, $6 million contract and a September call-up after a quick month zipping through the Minors.

He’s now experiencing a completely new life, new language and new league–all of which vary greatly from how he was brought up for 28 years of his life. But those in the Nationals front office and on the coaching staff believe once he becomes accustomed to these outside factors, he will be able to adjust his game quickly as well.

“He’s got to try and play catch-up,” 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.”

Despite international experience, Maya is not used to the patience of Major League hitters, who won’t swing at pitches slightly outside the strike zone. The Cuban National Series, while Cuba’s top professional league, is often compared to Double- or Triple-A ball in the States, where hitters are decidedly less patient. On one particular occasion while pitching in the Minors this season, Maya acknowledged that he was not used to walking batters and allowed it to shake him up.

He finished 0-3 with a 5.88 ERA (26.0 IP/ 17 ER), 12 strikeouts and 11 walks in five Major League starts. In his three losses, he would pitch a solid game, save for one inning. In that one inning, he would walk batters, give up runs and look like a completely different pitcher. These stretches of success show us the pitcher he can become, but his shaky innings lend to questions of sustainability. It’s also important to note that through Maya’s five starts, the Nationals scored just two total runs, both on solo home runs, while he was in the game–run support that only Cliff Lee could appreciate.

Maya’s fastball tops out in the low 90s–he’s not exactly going to intimidate hitters with his speed, but he commands a dominant curveball and slider. “There’s a lot of guys that pitch at that velocity, right around 90 mph in and out, change speeds, good breaking ball, good changeup and fearless,” Manager Jim Riggleman said of Maya’s pitching style. “The guy down there in Florida that beats us a lot, [Marlins starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez], he reaches back and gets 93 mph now and then, but he pitches at 90 mph, right around that area, and just continues to baffle you, and I see a little bit of that in Maya.”

He’s got time to develop and adjust to new a style and reveal his full ability, but how long will fans be patient while Maya tries to convert his international success to success for the Nationals?

“I have a lot more to show, to prove here,” Maya said. “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.”

The 2011 season will hopefully show fans what Maya is all about.

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