There's a perception about international pitchers that when they come to the U.S., they're doing so as a finished product. Maybe it's because of the hefty contracts and high-profile bidding wars it takes to get them, or possibly because of the age at which they arrive in the majors. But for whatever reason, it's usually assumed they'll arrive in a new country and a higher level of competition, ready to compete right away.
That hasn't happened for Yunesky Maya. Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty and manager Jim Riggleman believe it will, asserting the Cuban right-hander has looked better in each of his four starts. The results, though, haven't improved. And setting aside the future, the present reality is this: Maya just hasn't been very good.
The 29-year-old, who signed a four-year deal with the Nationals in July, was cruising toward his first quality start in the majors on Saturday when his growing pains with big league pitching came out. He threw four straight balls to Martin Prado to start the sixth inning, sent Prado to second on a wild pitch with Derrek Lee at the plate, gave up two hits and then hung a slider to Alex Gonzalez, who launched it to left field for a three-run homer that effectively settled the fact the Nationals would be losing to the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.
The Nationals, unable to do anything with the 12 runners they put on base, did just that, falling 5-0 and ending a season-high four-game win streak. But the attention afterward was on Maya.
"Today, I felt great. I was throwing the fastball," said Maya, with catcher Wil Nieves acting as his interpreter. "I felt like I was pitching back home. There's obviously room to improve. I have a lot more to show, and to prove here. This is the best baseball in the world, and every day, I feel more comfortable. That's what I'm looking for, and I'm just feeling good. But there's always room to improve."
Maya allowed five runs, four of them earned, in 5 1/3 innings. He now has a 6.43 ERA in four starts, none of which has lasted longer than six innings. He threw his fastball better today than he has most of the year, but still wasn't spotting his pitches effectively enough in the strike zone.
And the Braves, facing Maya for the second time in 12 days, did more than enough damage against him.
"It's like (bullpen coach) Jimmy Lett says: Six months ago, he's pitching against Turkey or Holland, and today he's against the Atlanta Braves," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "Over there, there's a lot of places where you're going to get expanded zones. Here, you don't get that. If you don't throw a strike, you're not going to get a called strike. So you've got to learn how to be more aggressive in the zone, whereas other places, you're not."
McCatty said Maya is making progress, asking questions in his bullpen sessions through bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo and learning how to deal with more patient hitters. His education, though, is coming in big league games with fans and reporters in attendance, and each session comes with a result.
So far, those results haven't been good.
"If he says (the hitters) are really patient down (in the minor leagues), that's an indication of how much he's got to learn, or where international baseball is, or whatever it is," McCatty said. "This is so much more heady, if that's a correct term, than playing minor league baseball. You can get away with so much crap down there. If you throw hard and have a good breaking ball, you're going to light up everybody. But it's command in the zone. That's what he's got to learn."