Mackey: Even after arm 'exploded,' Zumaya expects to throw 100 again
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A crowd of 40,000-plus couldn't possibly have been more silent than in the bottom of the eighth inning on June 28, 2010 at Target Field.
That was the day Detroit Tigers right-hander Joel Zumaya collapsed to the ground in intense pain after throwing a full-count fastball to Delmon Young, who fouled the pitch off before watching along with everybody else as Zumaya writhed on the ground at the base of the mound.
"That was a real tough night for me. I was actually facing one of my good friends (Young)," Zumaya said in a conference call on Thursday.
"I was warming up just fine and threw a couple, and then I released a fastball and I just felt my arm just... I don't know... I guess it exploded. It wasn't pleasant. It knocked me down to my knees. I haven't been knocked down to my knees since a high school fight."
After lying on the ground for more than a minute, Zumaya was eventually helped back to the dugout, clutching his trembling right arm with a look of submission and anguish on his face.
Gerald Laird, Zumaya's catcher that night, was visibly shaken by the incident, telling reporters after the game, "You look at him, you see him rolling on the ground -- you're like, 'Oh my God, that did not just happen.'"
The injury was classified as a fractured elbow -- a feeling Zumaya described at the time "like someone took a hammer and just shattered my elbow."
Speaking to reporters in the dugout at Target Field the day after the injury, Zumaya said he stayed up most of the night contemplating his career, and life, with his wife.
"I went home last night and I said, 'I've had enough of it.' But in the back of my head I'm strong-willed. I won't give up," Zumaya said less than 24 hours after the injury.
"I'm coming off 40 minutes of sleep. I didn't sleep at all last night. I think I still have a chance, and if it's not with this organization (the Tigers), maybe someone will take the chance to realize I am a hard-working person. I do have a chance.
"I've got a son, and I do want him to see me play baseball. I'm not going to give it up."
Zumaya, now 27, underwent surgery two weeks later and rehabbed throughout the offseason. Having previously undergone two right shoulder surgeries and surgery on his right hand, the rehab process wasn't unfamiliar to Zumaya. But this one hit a snag.
"I came back to spring training the following year (in 2011)," he said Thursday. "The surgery went well. Everything was going great, but I just ran into another little hump and happened to get it cleaned up by Dr. (James) Andrews."
That "little hump" was actually more than just a clean-up procedure. Zumaya continued by saying, "It was the whole procedure done again," which is why he missed the entire 2011 season as well.
"It was taking the screw out, re-fitting another screw in there. The screw they initially put in actually had a washer at the end of it, so basically if I got extended with my arm it was causing me to get bone chips at the back of my elbow. So that was the discomfort I was feeling a lot, and I wasn't capable of getting fully extended."
Zumaya had an X-ray on Wednesday that looked "remarkable," he said, according to doctors.
He added, "Being out the whole year basically gave me the whole year I needed for this arm to recuperate and to get real healthy."
Zumaya hasn't thrown a big-league pitch since that incident 571 days ago. But after signing a one-year deal with the Twins this week, his next regular-season major league pitch could come on the same mound as his last.
Full circle, you might say.
Zumaya's contract pays a base salary of $850,000, but only $400,000 is guaranteed if he doesn't make the 25-man roster out of spring training -- an unlikely scenario if Zumaya can just stay healthy throughout February and March. If he performs well, Zumaya can earn up to $1.8 million in incentives.
"Everybody knows he's had some problems injury-wise, but he's healthy right now," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "And we will bring him into spring training and certainly watch him, but he will be able to participate from the get-go."
Zumaya hasn't thrown more than 38 innings in a season since his rookie year in 2006, but even with such a storied injury history his right arm remains one of the most intriguing in baseball. So much so, in fact, that nearly every major league team sent a scout to Houston in mid-December to watch him throw a bullpen session.
Twins officials said Zumaya's fastball clocked anywhere between 92-94 mph that day, which is down from his average fastball of 99 mph in 2009-2010, but encouraging considering the circumstances.
That said, are the days of throwing 100 miles per hour over?
"Not at all, sir," Zumaya said.
"I've toned it down a little bit, where I know I've grown up a little bit as a pitcher a little bit now, just being injured and having to go through these injuries, and having to learn how to pitch in the big leagues. You just can't throw 100 by people now. For me, 100 is overrated. There's quite a few athletes out there that can throw 100 and hitters are timing it now. So basically, for me, pitching at 95-96, I threw a pretty decent curveball for scouts that I've been working all offseason to get that back. In '06 I had a pretty dang good curveball. And I'm working on a changeup too, just to get the hitters off of my fastball a little bit. ...
"But there's no doubt to me that I'll touch triple-digits again this year. Maybe in the summer when it's warm. ...
"Maybe against those Tigers."