Like his fastball, Zumaya rises

Like his fastball, Zumaya rises

If Detroit Tigers fans want to know what their future looks like, they need only to head to Erie, Pa.

They got a glimpse when Justin Verlander made a one-start stop in Cleveland for the big league club. They'll get another when Verlander and fellow SeaWolve Joel Zumaya come to Comerica Park on Sunday for the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game.

While Verlander has been on the radar since being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft, Zumaya flew under it, not going until the 11th round of the 2002 draft.

After he signed, Zumaya's velocity skyrocketed. He now touches 98 miles per hour, a big reason (along with some organizational injuries) Zumaya made his debut in Erie in 2004 at age 19.

That experience wasn't particularly pretty. Zumaya posted a 6.30 ERA in four starts, though he did strike out 29 in 20 innings. But it's more what that stint did for his future that impacts this story.

"It helped me a lot," Zumaya said. "There are a lot better hitters up here. I'm a young buck. It's been a big improvement for me. I've learned a lot of things. I still have a lot more things to learn, but I'm learning each and every day."

The young buck won't turn 21 until November, but it seems like he's shortened that learning curve this year. The right-hander was 7-3 with a 2.90 ERA, good for eighth in the Eastern League. His 137 strikeouts in 102 1/3 innings is second in Minor League Baseball (the Cubs' Rich Hill has 139). It appears that Zumaya learned from the licks he took last summer that he can't live on heaters alone as he moves up the Tigers' ladder.

"I got introduced last year when I got called up to Double-A," Zumaya said. "I was down in Lakeland and Michigan, I was just blowing gas by people. I came up here and thought I could do the same thing. I got lit up a little and it taught me a lesson, that I need a second and third pitch up here.

"I'm starting to become a pitcher and use two other pitches to go with my fastball. That's mostly what I've improved on, becoming a pitcher, which is what I'm supposed to be."

Zumaya has worked on perfecting his knuckle curve and his changeup, the latter of which has become his second best pitch and a big reason why the Eastern League is hitting just .193 against him.

When Verlander got promoted from Lakeland earlier this year, Zumaya knew he had a kindred spirit. Both have electric stuff with big fastballs; both need to continue to throw the secondary pitches consistently to keep moving toward a full-time gig in Detroit.

"The guy is awesome," Zumaya said about Verlander. "The words that came out of his mouth were, 'Let's do this.' I think we'll go at it. We'll have a little competition who can do the best. I think we've established already what we have to do for our team, and we've told each other we're going to do it." Erie's rotation isn't just two deep, either. Humberto Sanchez (43 strikeouts in 36 innings since returning from injury in early June) can light up the radar gun just as well as Zumaya and Verlander. If 2003 first-round pick Kyle Sleeth can make it back healthy, the SeaWolves will sport a starting four that should have the Comerica faithful dreaming of pennants.

"It's going to be hard for other teams," Zumaya said. "We've got three guys up in the mid-90s. It's going to be fun and exciting to watch.

"That's an amazing starting four right there. I'm not trying to get ahead of myself, but that's an All-Star lineup right there."

Zumaya himself is an All-Star twice over, being named to the Eastern League contest on July 13 in addition to the Futures Game. But before he heads to Portland for his league's contest, he'll get a feel for what it might be like in the not-too-distant future when he and Verlander might call Motown their home.

"I've never been to Detroit," Zumaya said. "I'm waiting to get there and show people what I have.

"I'm so excited about it. I was so stoked about it. We were in New Hampshire when I received the package and the letter. I walked into the lockerroom, and everyone just started applauding and congratulating me. I was overjoyed. It's going to be a great experience."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.