Zumaya wants to stay in the pen
DETROIT -- All that's missing is the music. But Joel Zumaya admits he's finally giving that some thought, too.
The rookie pitching sensation of the Tigers thinks he's found just the right tune to accompany his relief appearances. Now all he has to do is convince the staff at Comerica Park that his selection -- System of a Down's "B.Y.O.B.", an anti-war anthem with thrash-metal guitar riffs and some objectionable lyrics -- is suitable for a wider listening audience than just his own iPod.
"It gets the blood flowing," said Zumaya, a 21-year-old fireballer who has turned the pitcher's mound at Comerica Park into his own private mosh pit. "There's gotta be a radio version of it somewhere."
Of course, introductions really aren't necessary anymore. Zumaya, already a fan favorite in Detroit just three months into his big league career, has quickly made a name for himself with his 100-mph fastball and his demonstrative, fist-pumping antics in the late innings.
Zumaya calls it his "bulldog mentality," and he says it's that alter-ego that fuels his rocket arm.
"When I get in between those lines, my whole personality changes," said Zumaya, a San Diego native who proudly hails his Mexican-American heritage. "I go from being the nicest guy -- I would say I'm a sweetheart -- (outside) the lines. But when I get in there, everything just changes. It turns up another notch, another switch turns on."
So does the radar gun, as everyone -- teammates included -- has noticed.
Last weekend, Zumaya's fastball was clocked at a jaw-dropping, mitt-popping 102 mph as he earned his first major league save with a three-inning relief outing against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The pitch that had everyone talking afterward came with one out in the ninth inning against cleanup hitter Troy Glaus. In center field, Curtis Granderson swiveled around to check the damage on the scoreboard where the radar gun readings are shown to the crowd. This has become a game within the game for Tigers outfielders, waiting to see how long it takes Zumaya to hit triple digits after he enters the game.
"When he hit 102, I was trying to signal it to Marcus (Thames) and he just waved me off like it was a mistake or something," said Granderson, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with Zumaya. "We were both laughing about it.
"I remember (manager Jim) Leyland telling Joel in spring training when we were playing the Yankees, 'Don't try to throw it 110 (mph). You're gonna throw hard naturally. So just let it happen.' And that's what he's doing. It's fun to watch."
If you're wondering where that overpowering stuff comes from, though, don't bother asking Zumaya, who threw only in the upper-80s when the Tigers made him an 11th-round draft pick -- he'd expected to be drafted as a hitter not a pitcher -- in 2002.
The velocity has climbed steadily since, right along with Zumaya's ascent through the minor leagues. But it wasn't until he shed a few pounds and improved his training regimen, he said, that he started to turn heads -- from scouts and opposing hitters.
Zumaya's 199 strikeouts (in just 151 1/3 innings) last season at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo was the second-highest total in the minor leagues. He held opponents to a .189 batting average while being used exclusively as a starting pitcher.
"The light switch just turned on, I guess you could say," Zumaya said, reaching into his locker to knock on wood. "And I haven't blown a gasket yet."
That is not to say there haven't been a few sparks. The first came in the season opener against the Kansas City Royals, when Leyland surprised Zumaya with a call to the bullpen to relieve starter Kenny Rogers in the seventh inning.
"They said, 'Zumaya, you're in,' and I was like, 'Holy smoke,' " said Zumaya, who promptly fired a 98-mph fastball past Reggie Sanders.
Zumaya later struck out Emil Brown with a 79-mph curveball that also found the strike zone.
Joked Rogers: "I think his curveball is faster than my fastball."
With veteran closer Todd Jones struggling of late -- he's 1-4 with a 15.58 ERA in his last seven appearances -- Zumaya's red-hot right hand has Tigers fans clamoring for him to get a shot as the closer. Leyland insists he's "not ready" for that role, and Zumaya -- who admits his days as a starter are likely over -- is fine with that.
"I feel like my role is maybe in the future as a closer -- I don't want to be a starter -- but we've got a great bullpen right now," Zumaya said. "I mean, I'll do whatever Detroit wants me to do. But I just like that Leyland knows if we're in trouble, he can call down and just say, 'Zumaya, let's go.' "
On Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Zumaya struck out five in two innings as he extended his personal scoreless streak to 10 games (15 innings). He leads American League relievers with 43 strikeouts this season and opponents are hitting just .155 against him. He also hit 99 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun on several occasions before stalking off the mound after escaping a bases-loaded jam in the 10th inning.
"He's got the confidence, he's got the stuff and he executes," Tigers catcher Vance Wilson said. "You can throw 100 miles per hour, but if you're all over the place, it doesn't do a lot of good. The fact that he can control it, and that he wants the ball -- he's not intimidated by anybody -- makes him special. He's one of those guys you're glad he's on your team."