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Zoom Zoom wants more than 100 mph

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Joel Zumaya(notes) has a chili dog in one hand and a baseball in the other. He's demonstrating how he grips his new pitch, a split-fingered fastball.

On the baseball, not the dog.

A finger on this side of one seam, a finger on the other side of the parallel seam and then, he explains, he throws it as hard as he can.

But, you probably knew that.

It's his nature.

He debuted that fresh splitter about a week ago. Just the one.

"It hit the backstop," he says, "on a bounce."

Like the pitch, the guy who threw it is in transition. He hopes so, anyway.

Zumaya is trying, throwing more curveballs than he ever has, throwing them every day so they become more than a way to kill time between fastballs, and then asking new Detroit Tigers teammate Jose Valverde(notes) to teach him the splitter and throwing a half-dozen of those every day, too.

Before giving himself over to, as he calls it, "being a pitcher," Zumaya first had to confront his fastball. Not just any fastball, either. The fastball. Sent from the gods, blown from a howitzer, spit from a thundercloud.

His conclusion:

"A hundred miles an hour is way overrated, man."

Of course it is. When you've thrown at least one 104 mph – the fastest pitch ever recorded. But that wasn't his point. The fastball that brought tears to the eyes of scouts, that moved none other than Alex Rodriguez(notes) to admit he flat never saw one, likely stunted the development of Zumaya's secondary pitches (he also has a decent, if seldom-used, changeup), might have caused the shoulder and finger damage that limited him to fewer than 90 innings over the past three seasons and certainly lost the cache it once had with hitters.

"He has to understand now," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "that the intimidation factor is probably gone."

A hundred doesn't go as far as it used to. Not that Zumaya is going to stop throwing a hundred. He's merely hoping to accessorize a hundred.

"I totally feel Skip in his perspective," Zumaya said of Leyland's blunt assessment. "This is what's making me better. It's probably why my ERA is still zero, though I don't want to jinx it."

On a cool, breezy night during a 6-5 loss to the Angels and in front of family and friends who drove up from his native San Diego on Tuesday, Zumaya threw two more scoreless innings, so 8 1/3 zeroes to start the season. Of his 34 pitches, 24 were strikes. He threw four curveballs, two for strikes. Of the 30 fastballs, seven were at least 100 mph. Depending on your preferred gun, some were harder.

Same old Zoom, Zoom.

Three hours before game time, chewing off gobs of chili dog, a continuous loop of that night's opposing starter – Scott Kazmir(notes) in this case – on the television, the whole scene a bit sleepy, talk of mixing in curveballs is earnest and romantic. Fill the ballpark, bring up the lights on the eighth inning, make it a one-run game and put a man on second base, hell, a hundred was made for this.

It's not like it hasn't worked before. It's worked plenty. In 2006, Zumaya was brash, bulletproof, 21 years old, carrying an ERA under 2.00, striking out everybody and pitching in the World Series. Along with fellow rookie and partner-in-hundred Justin Verlander(notes), Zumaya became iconic in Detroit, where he was a living, breathing, Guitar Hero-playing muscle car. Sadly, Zumaya spent less time on the mound and more time in the shop for the next three seasons (as did the Tigers), as all that hard driving seemed equally hard on his body.

View photo

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Photo
Famed "Guitar Hero" victim Joel Zumaya leads a group of flame-throwing pitchers. Here's an unofficial list of the hardest tosses.
(Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Fast company
Team MPH Year Age
Joel Zumaya Detroit Tigers 104 2006 21
Stephen Strasburg(notes) San Diego State 103 2009 20
Matt Anderson Detroit Tigers 103 1998 22
Mark Wohlers Atlanta Braves 103 1995 25
Aroldis Chapman(notes) Team Cuba 102 2008 21
Matt Lindstrom Florida Marlins 102 2007 27
Justin Verlander Detroit Tigers 102 2007 24
Bobby Jenks Chicago White Sox 102 2006 25
Randy Johnson(notes) Arizona D'backs 102 2004 40
Armando Benitez N.Y. Mets 102 2002 29

At just 25 then, Zumaya seems to have acquired the perspective that comes with those miles. While he remains awed by the ferocity of the fastball – "It's weird," he said. "A lot of people ask me how I do it. I don't know. I just throw it." – who wouldn't be? His innings remain stop-and-watch-and-sigh passion plays, by the end of that sword, someone's living and someone's dying. And then they'll do it again the next night.

Leyland could maybe do without the drama. At least some of the drama. He's trying to keep the kid upright and the outs coming and the bullpen whole. He suspects those radar readings are Zumaya's high and he tries to understand, because he loves the kid and wants him to be what he can be, and earn what he can earn, and throw a first-pitch strike, maybe with a curveball.

"I never put the expectations on him that the media did and the fans did," Leyland said. "It's normal. You see 100 miles an hour and you automatically think at some point, 'Closer.' He may be. He may be. But, I never put that on him. I just want him to pitch and get outs when I call on him."

Honestly, Zumaya says, he doesn't quite know what he's becoming. What he does know is he's healthy. The arm feels great. The shoulder is good. He's not going to ride that splitter so hard that he takes out the elbow in the meantime. And, he really, really wants to be a pitcher, if it's in him.

"Eventually, if things go well, well, right now mentally I'm not ready to be a closer," he said. "I'm not ready for it yet. I'll do whatever they want. If they want me to set up and eventually be a closer, I'll do that. Who knows, maybe going back to starting again. It's pretty fun coming out of the bullpen, too. But I know I don't have to worry about all that stuff. It'll come."

Presumably, it'll come fast. It's his nature.

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