PEORIA, Ill. -- Alessandro Maestri is a long way from his home in Viserba, Italy, playing for the Class A Peoria Chiefs.

Maestri, 21, is the first Italian-born pitcher to sign with a Major League team. His plan is to become the first Italian-born pitcher to play in the big leagues.

"Nobody has gone farther than [Class A]," Maestri said. "I want to be the first."

He got off to a good start at Peoria. Maestri did not give up a run in nine innings over his first five games, allowing two hits and striking out four. On April 30 against South Bend, he was charged with two runs on four hits over two innings, and allowed the two runners he inherited to score. In his next outing, he was back on track and threw 2 1/3 shutout innings. For the season, he is 1-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight games, giving up 10 hits and striking out 10 over 14 1/3 innings.

"I was doing good and felt good," Maestri said after the game against South Bend. "I want to keep doing what I was doing. I feel pretty confident with myself. That was kind of an unlucky game."

One of the hits he gave up against South Bend was a double that bounced over the third baseman and went down the line. Stuff happens. The numbers are impressive. Right-handers are batting .077 against him, while lefties are hitting .286.

Although soccer is much more popular in Italy than baseball, Maestri was influenced by his older brother, Francesco.

"I just did everything he was doing, so I followed him," Maestri said. "I started, and I didn't stop. I like it, and had fun playing."

The Cubs discovered Maestri when the pitcher took part in a clinic in Tirrenia, Italy, a few years ago. Chicago pitching coach Larry Rothschild and assistant general manager Randy Bush both watched the right-hander work out.

"[Rothschild] told me to keep working, and gave me confidence," Maestri said. "It was nice to speak with a big-league pitching coach."

"He was impressive," Rothschild said. "Italian baseball is not that progressed, but it's better than you would imagine. He kind of stuck out."

Paul Weaver, special assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, oversees the scouting in Europe, and was headed to Amsterdam this summer to see the Cuban and U.S. national teams play. The Cubs scout Europe and invite the top 50 or so kids to the complex in Italy, where they're given instruction and evaluated.

"I know they're trying to progress it," Rothschild said of baseball in Italy. "The problem you have is soccer is so big, and with baseball, the economics of it, it makes it tough. The people who are interested are really interested. They're searching for knowledge everywhere. As time goes on and they get some support, you could have players come out of Italy."

Maestri is doing his part. He keeps a blog about his time with the Peoria Chiefs, which includes photos of his glove and O'Brien Field. It is written in Italian, and he has received a lot of feedback from friends back home.

"There's a lot of people enjoying my experience," he said.

Maestri is also not alone. Alex Liddi, an infielder from San Remo, Italy, is playing for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in the Midwest League. Maestri did not get a chance to pitch to Liddi because two of Peoria's games at Wisconsin were called because of cold weather.

Maestri did pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Italy, and it was an eye-opening experience. He served up a first-pitch home run to Moises Alou in a game against the Dominican Republic, and also threw a wild pitch that scored a run in a game against Venezuela.

"I wasn't sure I belonged in that kind of competition," he said last summer. "It was too big for me, but it was a lot of fun and my confidence is a lot higher now because of that experience."

The experience was something he'll never forget, and he called it "the best 10 days I have spent in baseball."

Baseball is fifth in popularity in Italy, behind soccer, basketball, volleyball and water polo. American servicemen introduced the game to Italy, and the first professional leagues were not established until after World War II. The highest level of play in Italy today is considered to be on par with Class A ball in the United States.

Maestri is determined.

"If you want to play, you can find a team," he said. "There are teams around."

He's had no trouble adjusting to life in Peoria. He can speak a little Spanish -- "It's close to Italian," he says -- and can communicate with the Latin players on the team.

"I like the food here -- I eat American food," he said.

He doesn't have a favorite ballplayer. He never watched baseball until last year, when he followed games on the Internet using MLB.TV.

He is called "Alex," not Alessandro because, as he says, it's easier. And what's the word for "baseball" in Italian?

"It's just 'baseball,'" Maestri said, smiling.

That's all he needs to know.