Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Yunesky Maya battled back from a rough second inning but still took the loss.
Maya's answer: He's not necessarily encouraged or discouraged. More disappointed than anything else.
"Disappointed because of the stuff that's been happening," the Cuban right-hander said through teammate Joel Peralta, who translated tonight.
Maya said he would much rather give up 10 runs, all on base hits, than give up four runs via three hits, two walks, a hit batter and two balks. He called the consecutive balks in the second inning tonight "minor-league stuff" that he shouldn't be doing at this level.
Clearly, the 29-year-old hurler has high standards for himself. He could be content to have battled back from those ragged early innings and pitched well enough to keep the Nationals in the game. But he seems to care more about being the guy who wins the game for his team rather than being the guy who just keeps things close.
And that's a good sign for a Nationals club that could use another starting pitcher with some guts.
"We've only seen him twice, but for him to be able to rebound and do that is obviously a positive," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's had one bad inning each time. Other than that, he's been pretty good. It's still pretty early to tell exactly what he's about, but he seems pretty good."
There have been moments in each of Maya's two major-league starts when you've wondering whether this guy has any chance of success at this level. His fastball barely tops out at 91 mph. He's prone to allowing a couple of mistakes turn into something far more damaging.
But in each instance, Maya has shown grit in shrugging those early struggles aside and setting down the opposition. Last week against the Mets, he allowed four early runs and then retired 11 of 12. Tonight against the Braves, he followed up the disastrous second inning by retiring 12 of 16.
Maya attributed his struggles to a combination of nerves and getting out of rhythm when he puts runners on base. He clearly looked rattled down that four-run second, leading to a pair of balks when he flinched while trying to figure out the sign catcher Wilson Ramos was giving him.
"It's very important for him after the tough inning, the bad inning, to go back out there and try to control the game," Maya said via Peralta.
Of course, on this night it wouldn't have mattered if Maya pitched like Stephen Strasburg. His teammates never had a chance to score even a single run off Derek Lowe, who turned in one of the best performances of his life: eight innings, six hits, zero walks and a career-high 12 strikeouts.
This is the same Derek Lowe who in three previous starts against the Nats this season was 0-3 with a 6.11 ERA. So in the words of Fred Willard's character from "A Mighty Wind": Wha' happened?
Well, two things. First, Lowe threw plenty more sliders to right-handed hitters, striking out Zimmerman once, Michael Morse twice and Ian Desmond three times. (Desmond whiffed once more in the ninth against Billy Wagner, earning himself the Golden Sombrero.)
Second, Lowe took full advantage of a wide strike zone from plate umpire Dan Iassogna, who kept calling pitches on the lower outside corner to left-handed hitters strikes. Whether the calls were right or wrong, you have to admit Iassogna was consistent. And Lowe made the most of it.
"He's putting it there where Maddux used to put it and Glavine used to put it, and he got them," Riggleman said. "He got those calls. You can't change what you feel is your strike zone as a hitter. You can't get out of that."
Riggleman took it another step and intimated a pitcher from the Braves staff was more likely to get those calls than a pitcher from his Nationals staff.
"I think just in general, whether it's conscious or subconscious, umpires do a great job," the manager said. "But it's the chicken and the egg. You're not going to get the respect around the league as the Washington Nationals until you start winning some games. And it's harder to win games if you don't get a few breaks on those types of calls.
"That all comes out as an excuse. But we know the strike zone. Our hitters know the strike zone pretty good. And for that many called strikes to be on us, I think Lowe really took advantage of us there with a great effort on his part and a very smart effort on his part."
By night's end, the Nationals' lineup had struck out a total of 15 times against Lowe and Wagner and been shut out for the 12th time this season, the fifth time in their last 23 games.
Where'd the offense go? Well, Josh Willingham is recovering from knee surgery. Adam Dunn is going through another September slump. Roger Bernadina looks tired as his first full season in the majors approaches its conclusion. Michael Morse has been pressed into everyday duty. And Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos are all rookies who are going to have their moments in the sun but are also going to struggle at times. Throw in what has to be the weakest bench in the majors (Nats pinch hitters are batting .227 this season) and this is what you get.
The Nationals can only hope the offensive pieces fall into place again before season's end. And they can only hope Maya shows an ability not only to rebound from one ragged inning but to prevent that ragged inning from ever taking place.