NEW YORK – For all of the talk about Joel Zumaya’s eye-popping fastball, it doesn’t stand up to the power of his sneeze.
Really, that did pop his eye. Or a blood vessel in his right one, at least. Doctors call it a subconjunctival hemorrhage, laymen call it a puddle of blood pooling next to the colored part and Zumaya’s teammates on the Detroit Tigers call it just another bit of mystery to add to his lore.
Not that he needed a bloody eye to intimidate the New York Yankees any more than he did with his fastball Thursday. Depending on the radar gun, it sat around 100 mph, crept to 102 mph, might have tickled 103 mph and, to the Yankees who couldn’t touch it – Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez among them – looked like something only Sidd Finch could throw.
Fittingly so, for it was equally unbelievable and humorous the way Zumaya, a 21-year-old rookie reliever, disposed of the heart of the Yankees’ order in the Tigers’ 4-3 victory in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, sending the best-of-five series back to Detroit tied at one game apiece. The Yankees could only shake their head at Zumaya’s gas, and the Tigers could only laugh, seeing Zumaya cauterize New York’s offense while staring down hitters with a case of red-eye no camera function could conceal.
“I think he intentionally tried to pop his blood vessel,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. “He’s ugly anyway. It doesn’t matter.”
Already Zumaya has the countenance of a bully – the hard-boiled stare and willingness to lock eyes with the batter, complemented by the U-shaped ring of hair on his chin and tattoo of flames snaking up his arm.
“I want to be intimidating,” Zumaya said. “I don’t back down from anybody. I go straight after guys with my fastball.”
First up was Jeter, coming off a 5-for-5 night in Game 1. He worked the count to 3-2 before waving through the fastball. Next stood Bobby Abreu, who pounded an 86-mph slider into the ground to end the seventh inning.
Sheffield came the closest to touching Zumaya, lining a ball right at center fielder Curtis Granderson. By then, the shadows had skulked over home plate, and it looked like Zumaya was throwing from the top of a beacon, light trailing his fastball until it arrived to the plate, when it suddenly blackened. The optical illusion made for a pair of easy strikeouts: Giambi, swinging through a pitch that registered 101 on the stadium’s gun, and Rodriguez missing three consecutive pitches in triple digits and prompting Zumaya to pirouette, pump his fist and bound back to the Tigers bench, where scores of huzzahs awaited.
“Can’t think of any,” Jeter said.
“He throws hard,” Rodriguez said.
“Almost impossible to hit,” Sheffield said.
That is Zumaya’s essence: A one-sentence concession from everyone he faces.
“Hitters can’t wait to get to me,” Tigers closer Todd Jones said, “because they don’t have to deal with him.”
Jones, always a shaky proposition, held off the Yankees in the ninth and afterward was effusive in his praise. He understands arms like Zumaya’s are rare, and finding them in the 11th round of the draft is like buying a zircon and discovering it’s a real diamond.
Tigers scout Rob Wilfong signed Zumaya out of Bonita Vista High near San Diego in 2002, back when he took yoga classes to help his arm’s flexibility. Whether it was the poses or natural growth, Zumaya’s fastball turned from a projectible 93 in high school to the 103-mph monster that lit the McAfee Coliseum radar gun on July 4 in Oakland.
“Hopefully,” Zumaya said, “the (Yankees) can go and talk about Zumaya, ‘Hey, this and this.’ ”
Expected “this” No. 1: He throws really hard.
Expected “this” No. 2: So, he’s a free agent in how many years?
Five, though Zumaya certainly isn’t counting. He was too busy fielding congratulatory phone calls, nursing a Corona, reveling in all the attention he got for making a mockery of this century’s Murderer’s Row.
All Zumaya said he wanted was a chance to pitch at Yankee Stadium, so when manager Jim Leyland summoned him from the bullpen, he walked hurriedly down the three steps, his cleats clacking against the stone pathway leading to the door and onto the field.
“I wanted to get the feeling of the crowd and the boos,” Zumaya said. “It’s the adrenaline running in my body. You can’t walk in from the bullpen with the adrenaline I had today. You’re going to either have a little gallop or sprint in. I didn’t want to run too hard because I might have passed out.”
Not yet. Zumaya’s got an upset to hatch, and the Yankees, at least on Thursday, seemed clueless as how to stop it.