Zumaya: Handle with care

When he talks about his arm, Joel Zumaya's words inevitably yield to a noise. He's got an arsenal of them. Like, when he discusses his fear of lifting things. A Red Bull is about his limit. Even when he's in the weight room, Zumaya makes sure the Detroit Tigers' strength coach hovers over him with a spot, because he's convinced his right arm might …


It's his best attempt to mimic the movie effect of a bone snapping, and Zumaya tries to laugh off the nerves that penetrate his every move. He's 23. He doesn't want to worry about his life turning into an onomatopoeia.

"I understand our arms aren't meant to throw like this," Zumaya said. "And I know I'm in the toughest position, because I throw differently than almost everyone. I'm still young. But one day, I don't know if my arm is going to – "


That one was something blowing up.

In the corner of the Tigers' clubhouse, closer Todd Jones rifles through a tattoo magazine. There's the demonic whole-back tat, the oddball who got a gorilla inked on his arm and the one of a biceps covered with koi fish – just like Zumaya's.

"They're good luck," he said. "I got them because all the troubles my right arm has had, I need all the luck I can get."

The stories are familiar. At the end of his rookie season in 2006, the one in which he exploded into baseball's relief-pitching elite with fastballs that licked 102 mph and helped lead the Tigers to the World Series, general manager Dave Dombrowski attributed Zumaya's arm soreness to marathon Guitar Hero sessions. And last year, Zumaya missed half the season when his middle finger cried uncle and a tendon ruptured under the pressure of his delivery.

The latest, though. Well, it's a distant cousin of the dog ate my homework. A large box, Zumaya said, fell on his shoulder when he was helping his family move to avoid the California wildfires in late October. He stuck to the story. The Tigers believed him because they had little choice.

More important than how he was injured was what the injury did to Detroit. Zumaya was pegged to close. Suddenly, without triple-digit gas in the ninth inning, the American League Central favorites' bullpen became vulnerable.

Which happened to parallel Zumaya's feelings.

"For a minute, I thought I was made out of glass," he said.

In early November, he underwent reconstructive surgery. No baseball player had returned from a mild tear of the AC joint, let alone a full blowout.

"I never thought I was going to be here again," Zumaya said. "Honest. I knew I could rehab and try. It was all up to me, and I committed myself to it. It was just that nobody could tell me for sure."

So he headed to Lakeland, Fla., to rebuild his shoulder, his career, even himself. Zumaya lost weight. He rehabbed not just to get back but to throw like he always had. Zumaya even quelled his partying. Or tried to, at least. The picture of him doing a keg stand didn't exactly endear him to the injury skeptics.

At night, he went to his favorite tattoo artist. When he came to Lakeland, the top of his right arm was practically naked. Now, it's covered in koi and flowers and other bursts of color. He looks at it as a reminder.

He did so, in fact, before his first rehab outing. Zumaya hadn't spent this much time in Lakeland since 2004, two years after the Tigers drafted him in the 11th round hoping he might develop into a starter. When he threw 98, they gushed. "Zoom, Zoom" Zumaya was for real.

Their rotation set coming into the 2006 season, the Tigers converted him to the bullpen. And so began the voyage that took him to that spot, on the cusp of returning.

Zumaya hit 98 that night. It was the adrenaline. The next day, he couldn't throw the ball 60 feet. He called the Tigers trainers and asked for the day off. They told him it was normal. It didn't feel like it.

"We were cautiously optimistic about him coming back at all," Jones said. "We didn't know what he was going to have if he did. It's hard to come back from that injury.

"I don't think anybody anticipated getting the percentage of Joel we got back."

It's not quite 100 percent yet, but it's close. The fastball, actually, is back at 100 mph, and Zumaya has been wild enough – 13 walks in 15 1/3 innings – that any hitter with a heartbeat at least pauses before stepping in against him.

The wildness hasn't been much of a deterrent. Zumaya's ERA is 1.76, and to go along with his curveball, he refined a changeup that dances along at 90 mph and causes Tigers starter Kenny Rogers – he of the 85-mph fastball – to shrug his shoulders.

More than that, Zumaya's return energized Detroit, which is 17-11 since his first game June 20. Along with Fernando Rodney, Zumaya has injected a listless bullpen with the kind of verve manager Jim Leyland appreciates.

"He's throwing the (expletive) out of the ball," Leyland said.

He had nightmares. Doctors gave Zumaya some Ambien because he wasn't sleeping well after the surgery, and it gave him the most vivid dreams. In one of them, he was playing catch. He would rear back, lurch all 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds of him forward and the ball would whimper out of his arm.

"I can't throw the ball soft," Zumaya said. "I really have to throw the ball hard to feel right."

Quite the Catch-22, huh? Zumaya's wants and needs are diametrically opposed. Instinct tells him to hit 100 mph, look at the radar gun, celebrate when the hitter can't catch up to it. Reality says that a man's arm can take only so much, and that even though Zumaya's injuries all deserve a freakish tag, they happened nonetheless, and proved his fragility.

"I don't think he'll ever be different," Leyland said. "I would be shocked. It's not in his makeup. I think he'll learn. I think he'll get better. But I don't think he'll be different. He's always going to be a real aggressive, tough, hard-nosed guy."

Zumaya nodded. Yeah, his manager knows him well. He's not going to stop, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not until his arm goes pcccccccccchhhh.