Zumaya feeling great, hopes it lasts all season

Zumaya feeling great, hopes it lasts all season

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Joel Zumaya had a hard time getting the smile off his face Monday. So, for that matter, did Victor Martinez.

Zumaya was in the midst of his first formal bullpen session in front of the Tigers' coaching staff when he unleashed a breaking ball that sent Martinez scrambling as it darted toward the dirt. The look on Martinez's face brought a wide grin from Zumaya.

"I'll tell you what," Martinez said later, "it's a lot more fun behind the plate for him than in the box."

Shortly after, Zumaya's fastball brought a grin from pitching coach Rick Knapp, who knows the drill with Zumaya and spring workouts by now.

"Knappy joked around and said, 'You just can't not throw hard, huh?'" Zumaya said. "I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Man, you just can't not throw hard.' I wasn't trying to throw hard today."

Zumaya wasn't trying to hit triple digits on a radar gun, because there was none. He was throwing hard without effort, which had to put a smile on a lot of faces.

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"He's just free and easy," manager Jim Leyland said. "There's not much effort there. That's good."

It's only one day into Spring Training, but so far, it's more fun for Zumaya than his past few years, too.

"I'm having a ball out there," Zumaya said. "I live down here in Florida now, so I had the opportunity to come in here every day. The first day, too, there's been a couple times when I haven't participated in that day, so to be 100 percent and throwing without pain and throw [bullpen sessions] with the guys and joke around, it's always a pleasure."

For all that has been made about Zumaya's injuries the last four years, from the ruptured tendon in his middle finger to the moving accident to the quarterback-like stress fracture in his shoulder, the fact that he keeps coming back throwing hard deserves equal billing. It's one thing to throw hard, another to be able to do that after injury upon injury.

According to fangraphs.com, Zumaya's fastball averaged 99.3 mph in each of the past two seasons, harder than he threw as a rookie strikeout machine in 2006 and nearly 2 mph harder than in '07 and '08.

Looks like the cannon arm is still there, amazingly enough. But there's a little more maturity to go with it. Zumaya comes in with more than his health, but also a plan. He moved with his wife and child to a new home in the Orlando area in part so he'd be close to the training facility.

He didn't simply fire away at Martinez on Monday. He made a point of mixing in his changeup, and he unleashed the breaking ball that got the reaction from Martinez. The secondary pitches have been chronicled almost as much as the injuries. They're forgotten, though, when Zumaya is on the comeback trail.

They aren't forgotten by Zumaya, who puts in a genuine effort to mix up his arsenal.

"That's probably why I had such a big smile on my face, man," Zumaya said. "My secondary pitches were freaking lights-out today. I wish I was actually throwing in a game today. My first breaking ball, Victor looked at me and goes [makes a face]. And I smiled back at him."

Martinez has had it watching Zumaya from the batter's box. The 1-for-7 lifetime performance said as much. When Martinez crouched for his first catching work as a Tiger, the familiar face he saw on the mound gave him a much different reaction.

He asked Zumaya to help him break in his catching mitt. Without getting overzealous, Zumaya obliged.

"It's not a secret. Everybody knows what he's capable of doing when he's healthy," Martinez said. "But today, what I saw today, the ball was just jumping out of his hand."

Nine months after the broken elbow bone that ended Zumaya's 2010 season in horrific fashion in Minnesota, there's nothing holding him back this spring. He's free to do every workout, and his training room regimen isn't out of the ordinary. The smile he flashed on the mound after that breaking ball was the same grin he wore while fielding ground balls during pitchers fielding practice Monday morning.

But as others have noted, keeping Zumaya healthy in the winter and spring isn't as big of an issue the past few years as keeping him healthy in the summer. Other than his due diligence on workouts, there isn't much more Zumaya can do about it. It's kind of hard to see a fractured olecranon bone coming.

"He was hurt, and he was hurt bad," Leyland said. "And now, all of a sudden, he's feeling really good. You want to go out, you can't wait to get on the mound and get a hitter in there. That's normal, and I don't think you want to act like that's not there. But you also want to make sure you have that [energy] channeled a little bit. Don't get so excited that you make some sort of foolish mistake, which he won't.

"But he looks great. And like Dave [Dombrowski] said on the Winter Caravan, it's time for this kid to have some good luck. We're real thrilled with where he's at."

Many others feel the same way about Zumaya's fortunes. His mother-in-law gave him a crucifix to wear around his neck. Zumaya isn't buying the luck part, at least not publicly, but when his bullpen session was over, he took out his crucifix and took note.

He's always had the fastball, even if fate always seems to have a changeup ready for him.

"Like I said, I feel really, really good about myself and the way my body feels," Zumaya said. "The way things are going right now, it looks good. I've just got to stay healthy for that whole year."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.