Tigers fear the worst after reliever Joel Zumaya's elbow goes 'pop'
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- Gerald Laird didn't even want to go to the mound.
As soon as he heard the noise, the Detroit Tigers catcher knew reliever Joel Zumaya was in trouble.
"It was just like a little 'pop' when he let the ball go," Laird said on Monday night, shortly after the Tigers sealed a 7-5 win over the Minnesota Twins while doctors examined Zumaya's throwing elbow in the visitor's clubhouse at Target Field.
"First, you have to catch the ball, then you look at him, you see him rolling on the ground -- you're like, 'Oh my God, that did not just happen.'"
Zumaya stayed down for more than a minute after delivering that final pitch to Delmon Young in the eighth inning, his right hand twitching as he grabbed the elbow and screamed in pain.
A hushed crowd of 40,681 rose to give Zumaya a rousing ovation once he got to his feet and began to walk off with a trainer on each side. The agony on his face told the story of what a scheduled MRI likely will reveal on Tuesday morning.
"It's not good," Leyland said. "I wasn't sure exactly what happened; we're still not exactly sure. So, I don't think it does us any good to speculate at this time, but obviously, it doesn't look good. It's an awesome, bad feeling when you see something like that."
And it could be the most significant injury setback yet for Zumaya, who had the arm in a sling as he dressed at his locker after the game and declined to speak through a Tigers spokesman.
"I didn't really know what to tell him," said Laird, who sought out Zumaya after the game.
"I just told him that, 'Everything's going to be fine, you're going to get through this and I'm going to see Zumaya on the mound again before you're said and done. It's a little block in the road, and in seven, eight months, you'll be throwing again and I'm sure I'll be seeing that 95, 96 (mph fastball) again.'"
It's worth wondering, though, whether this injury -- whatever it is -- will prove more challenging to overcome than the others Zumaya has battled.
A breakout star in 2006, when he posted a 1.94 earned-run average in 83 1/3 innings over 62 appearances, Zumaya pitched only 88 innings from 2007 to 2009 while missing chunks of time with injuries including a ruptured tendon in his hand to shoulder problems.
The 25-year-old was in the conversation for an All-Star bid this season, though, having gone 2-1 with a 2.58 ERA in 38 1/3 innings -- already the most Zumaya has pitched since his rookie year.
Then, one pitch changed everything.
"I know what he's been through, and it definitely looks like it's headed down another path of rehab," starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman said. "It's a bad scene, man. You just feel for the guy and just hope he comes back and be able to be the guy he used to be."
The Tigers also will have to figure out how to patch together their bullpen without one of the game's top set-up men. Closer Jose Valverde had to face five batters and throw 21 pitches in 1 2/3 innings to close Monday's win, and Leyland said he won't even consider using Valverde on Tuesday.
On a night the Tigers knocked the Twins out of first place for the first time since April 11, the victorious clubhouse was silent. The primary concern was for Zumaya, but players also acknowledged the impact of his absence on their push for the American League Central title.
"It breaks your heart," Leyland said. "(Zumaya)'s really worked his tail off to get back. But we'll have to see. I'm not going to paint the worst picture right now, because we don't really know facts. ... Obviously, I don't think it's too good."