ROOKIE PITCHER Joel Zumaya is the spark in the Tigers' bullpen and a reason Detroit fans are thinking of a pennant. - Dan Graschuck photo
The halfway point in the season has come and gone and Detroit still stands atop the baseball world. However, many know that the Tigers’ final push towards Major League Baseball glory will be a long and competitive grind wrought with unknowns.
One unknown at the start of the season was the Tigers’ pitching staff, especially the relief corps. But with the addition of Todd Jones, the improvement of Fernando Rodney and the elevation of rookie Joel Zumaya, the Tigers have produced one of the best relief staffs in baseball.
Zumaya, in particular, has heated up the relief staff and the Tigers’ fans with his go-go style and flare.
“He’s a tremendous talent with a great arm,” Rodney said.
“As a reliever, I like that he throws strikes and is very aggressive.”
Added starter Jerry Bonderman: “He has a lot of God-given ability to throw hard. He’s going to have a few bumps in the road, but he’ll be fine; he’s a bulldog.”
Although he has taken the league by storm, posting a 5-1 record, Zumaya leads the Tigers’ relievers in innings pitched and strike outs, and has the second best ERA on the team (2.58). Zumaya understands that he still has much to learn – the 102 mile per hour fastball is not enough.
“It is a big difference pitching in the majors than in the minors, because I could get away with a lot more stuff,” ” Zumaya explained. “In the minors, I was getting away with blowing people away with my fastball, but here I know I need off speed and other pitches.
“Right now I have a decent curveball, but I need to improve my changeup.”
Concurred Jones: “He’s doing a good job up here. He’s having such a great season, but you have to realize that he was in Double A last season, so he has not even touched the surface of what he could become.”
As the Tigers try to negotiate the stretch run, the excellent pitching that has carried them to the best record in the league will need to prove it was no fluke. Zumaya, in particular, will be called on to shut down opposing team’s rallies.
“Teams have seen me,” he noted, “and they will start cheating on my fastball and getting the barrel of the bat out there.”
As if being a rookie in a high-pressured pennant race was not enough, Zumaya has had to adjust to not being a starter and getting moved into the bullpen during spring training.
“Last year I was a starter, so I needed three pitches,” he remarked. “But at the beginning of the year, I got thrown into the pen and I went with my best pitch.
“I think the coaches knew that at my age, 21, and the way I pitched, I wasn’t going to last as a starter.”
Being a competitor, Zumaya said he would welcome the chance to be a starter, but right now he is only focused on the task at hand.
“It is a whole different mindset as a starter,” he said. “You expect to go seven to eight innings. However, in my role as setup man, I have to go right at the hitter and try to save the game for my starters.”
Zumaya also noted that the entire pitching staff has been very helpful. He said Jones, being a veteran closer, has given him lots of insight on coming out of the bullpen.
As for the Tigers’ ascension to the top of the standings, Zumaya noted that the team has “come together as a big family” and they have listened to “instruction from manager Jim Leyland” and company. In other words, they are solid as a collective entity.
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