By Yusseff Díaz
HIALEAH,FLA– Former Washington Nationals pitcher Yunesky Maya is someone that came from nothing to become what the American dream embodies. Before the Yunesky Maya, a native of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, would take a mound for the Washington Nationals, he was a mere ball boy for the province’s team in the Serie Nacional. Before that, he wasn’t even a baseball player he was a seven-time Cuban national champion in karate. Nicknamed “The Warrior” by the fans because he has been battling his whole life, Maya without a doubt is a real-life success story.
Maya was noticed by then manager Alfonso Urquiola of Pinar del Río, but before he could debut in Cuba military service came calling. It wasn’t until he reached the age of twenty before he was able to take the mound,” I used to help out with practice and pick-up balls at the stadium for Pinar del Río, I didn’t take the mound until I was twenty and the rest is history”, as he told the Miami Herald’s Jorge Ebro a couple years ago.
The hard throwing righty led the Serie Nacional in 2004-05 with an ERA of 1.61. In 2008-09 he won 13 games and posted an earned run average of 2.22. Maya would go one to be the top pitcher in Pinar and eventually the top National team pitcher. He was a member of the Cuban team that was the runner up in the inaugural WBC in 2006 and his strikeout of Carlos Lee in the first game of the tournament between Cuba and Panamá was epic.
“That Panamá game was historic for us. It gave us a breath of fresh air and the confidence to succeed for the rest of the tournament. That game reinstalled our confidence, especially because no one believed in us and this made us believe we could win the tournament. “
I recently asked him what he felt in that matchup with Lee who was a feared slugger in the Majors during that time. This is what he said, “That strikeout is something I will never forget. I punched out a guy who had hit 37 Homer’s that year in the big leagues and with three straight fastballs, which I threw with courage. I was so consumed by the moment I left the field crying that at-bat.”
In the upcoming 2009 Classic, the righty was the top starter for the Cubans.
Reaching the Majors
Yunesky Maya was suspended in the summer of 2009 by Cuban authorities and successfully fled Cuba in September of 2009. The Cuban signed with Washington on July 31, 2010 and made his first Major League start against the Mets.
He won his first MLB game on July 30, 2011, when he hurled 5.1 scoreless innings in a Washington Nationals shutout of the Mets 3-0 in 2011. He signed a minor league contract with the Braves in 2014 and returned to the league in 2016 with the Angels via a minor league contract in between a stint in the Korean Baseball Organization.
Maya spent two seasons in Korea with the Doosan Bears and on April 9, 2015, the pitcher had a magical evening when he threw a no-hitter for the Bears against the Nexen Heroes in a game in which he threw 136 pitches and struck out eight.
He recounted the last three outs to me when we spoke a few years ago,” What can I tell you there was some much adrenaline pumping through my body I could hardly think straight, yet I felt confident. I had a similar feeling when I took the mound in the first World Baseball Classic. All I could think of was my kids, my mom, and my family.” In his two years in the KBO, he compiled a record of 4-9.
A Dominican League Legend
The righty is revered in the Dominican Republic and is the only foreigner to win four Dominican League titles with four different teams. Yunesky Maya has also been named pitcher of the year twice in the DOWL, once with the Escogido Lions in 2010 and the other time with the Licey Tigers in 2015. “I’ve always thought of the DR as like a second home. The people of that country have always given my family and I plenty of love, we feel very at home there. I’ve won championships and pitchers of the year in that league, but for me, the biggest prize is the love of the people.”
This winter “The Warrior ” added to his legend by helping the Dominican League Champ win their 20th Caribbean World Series championship. During the tournament, he had a record of 1-0 and posted a sterling 1.80 earned run average.
Returning to Cuba
Although it’s been more than a decade since he has played in the Cuban League Maya still longs for the day, he can grace the mound at Captain Saint Louis stadium in Pinar del Río, ” I follow the Serie Nacional closely. I would like to return one day to the Cuban league. I think it’s the desire of all of us that have immigrated to return to the Serie Nacional. I dream of the day I can return to our league.”
In a career that has spanned 17 years and had its ups and downs one thing has been constant, that Maya is a warrior and has always fought to the end.