It is still very early in the season, but it is hard for true Tigers fans and hopefuls to hide their enthusiasm with the team’s competitive start.
Especially after last week’s home stand where the Tigers took a three-game series from nemesis and arch-rival the Minnesota Twins. They followed that series up with a sweep of one of the better teams in the American League, the Los Angeles Angels.
In the Tigers’ competitive start to the 2010 season many of the projected question marks on the pitching staff and in the playing field have played much better than most envisioned.
Jerry Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, Austin Jackson and Joel Zumaya, to name a few, have exceeded most expectations and thus far have been instrumental in the Tigers’ ascension as a team to be reckoned with.
In particular, reliever Zumaya, who the Tigers signed to a one-year $915,000 contract just before the start of the season, avoiding arbitration, has been pitching with a purpose.
Maybe that purpose is the one-year deal with a reported $20,000 bonus if he pitches in 35 games this year or maybe it is just the intense competitive fire that burns within him. It is probably a little of both.
The fact of the matter is since Zumaya hit the Motor City with his over 100 mph fast ball, injuries have shelved him. In 2007 he pitched in 28 games and in 2008 he appeared in 21 games. Last season he saw action in 29 games, the most since the 2006 season, but that season was cut short when he had to undergo shoulder surgery Aug. 21 to remove the non-union stress fracture of the coracoid process in his right shoulder.
After a third straight season in which he missed action due to a stint on the disabled list, it was no wonder some wondered out loud if Zumaya could come back and be the player who pitched in 62 games in 2006 and was named MLB.Com Setup Man of the Year when he finish third among all American League relievers with 97 strikeouts.
Through much rehabilitation, determination and sheer force of will, Zumaya has produced a very productive April, fashioning a 2-0 record with a 1.23 ERA, 16 strikeouts over 14 2/3 April innings and occasionally getting that much-talked-about fastball back up to 101 mph on radar guns.
Zumaya always believed that through effort and hard work he could regenerate himself and help this team win games, but it is natural for a little doubt to creep into anyone after three years of frustration.
“Basically it is always in the back of your head,” Zumaya said, “but you really cannot worry about injury or anything that distracts you from being aggressive and believing in yourself. After each surgery I did everything I was supposed to do and more. I kicked myself in the butt and just kept grinding and grinding.
“I must admit I’m a little surprised by my fast start, because I did not think I’d be this strong this early. I had not pitched against this type of competition in game situations in a while.”
Said third baseman Brandon Inge: “It is extremely hard to rehabilitate for a year or more and come back and expect to go out there and throw 100 mph fastballs again. To see how he had comeback with the same fire and still pushing heat out there says a lot about his work ethic and what a special person he is.”
Although Zumaya, along with first baseman Miguel Cabrera, won April honors for Tigers Pitcher and Player of the Month, respectively, Zumaya said he knows he still has a lot to work on and he’s experimenting with news things in his pitching repertoire.
“I’m not throwing with the same velocity all the time when I go out there,” Zumaya said. “I have a clear plan of what I’m doing and I think that just throwing hard is overrated. Big league hitters are not afraid and they are sitting and waiting on the fastball. That is why I have to have something else out there.
“I have a good curveball and I’ve been working on getting my breaking ball better. I pitch all the time until the coaches tell me to go sit down and not throw, otherwise I’m out there. Jose (Valverde) has been a big help, too. He’s a veteran and he’s picked up a few things that he is sharing with me, like a bunch of new grips and the split-finger fastball.”
If Zumaya and Ryan Perry keep setting an empty table for closer Valverde, the Tigers will keep themselves in a lot of games this year.
Zumaya said he really likes the bullpen and the never- say-die attitude of this year’s squad.
“As long as we keep playing nine innings we will keep ourselves on the hunt,” he said.
So far so good. But there is danger lurking over the horizon. After the Cleveland series this weekend, the Tigers will welcome New York, Boston and Chicago for a nine-game home stand at Comerica Park.
Leland Stein can be reached at email@example.com.