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Finally healthy, Zumaya ready for battle

Finally healthy, Zumaya ready for battle

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Joel Zumaya was Detroit's closer-in-waiting three years ago. He was a potential closer contestant a few months ago.

Now? Zumaya isn't taking anything for granted. All he knows, he says, is that he's healthy, more so than he has been for the past 2 1/2 years.

And as the hard-throwing right-hander enters what could be the Spring Training camp that determines the rest of his career, he sounds like someone on a mission.

"I'm coming in to prove something," Zumaya said after a bullpen session Tuesday at Joker Marchant Stadium. "I've got a lot to prove. The last two years, I've been sitting on the shelf, so I'm probably on my last string right now. And I don't want that last string to get pulled."

He isn't referring to anything attaching his shoulder as a string. He's talking about his career as a Tiger.

Even with the fact that Zumaya is tough on himself, it's a scenario few would've imagined after that magical 2006 season.

Zumaya pitched in 62 games and 83 1/3 innings as a rookie that year, but has just 78 appearances and 88 innings in three seasons since. When he avoided arbitration this winter, the Tigers included a clause in his contract that awards a bonus if he makes 30 appearances this season, something he hasn't done since '06.

Zumaya isn't claiming he's owed anything based off that year alone. He's just ready for a shot to prove himself again. He's healthy, he says, and he wants a chance to show what he can do.

"I have nothing bothering me in my arm anymore," Zumaya said. "I'm throwing the ball free and easy."

He has kept what was bothering him in his shoulder last year and wrecked his 2009 season just when it was getting going. It was a bone shard, the result of a stress fracture, but a lot larger than the sliver one might expect. Surgery last August removed it.

"I have it as a souvenir," Zumaya said. "It's probably the size of my thumb. It's that big."

A year ago, doctors believed he could pitch through the stress fracture, even with the bone fragment. Pro quarterbacks have thrown through similar stress fractures and felt fine. Unfortunately, there's so little history with pitchers and that kind of injury that they had no examples in that sport with that throwing motion.

An abbreviated Spring Training followed, with tendinitis costing Zumaya a chance to open the season on the active roster. He joined the club in late April, had mixed results through June, then felt his shoulder turn progressively worse in a disastrous outing at Yankee Stadium out of the All-Star break.

Part of Zumaya's problem, in hindsight, had to do with his arm angle. As he tried to pitch through shoulder trouble, he lowered his arm angle to a more comfortable slot. His pitches, in turn, flattened out, especially his fastball. He was throwing as hard as ever, but hitters connected.

Seven weeks after his surgery, Zumaya was "flipping the ball" to get a feel for it. He threw his first mound session before Christmas. He returned to throwing at a high school alumni game.

"I threw the last inning, just to see how it felt," he said. "And it felt fine."

Since then, he has been on a normal throwing program, not a rehab program. His bullpen session Tuesday morning was his sixth since coming to Lakeland right after New Year's Day. Each one has left him feeling encouraged.

What encouraged pitching coach Rick Knapp, besides the health, was the arm angle. It has Zumaya excited, too.

"My arm slot is totally different from where I was the last two years," he said. "It's a lot higher. It's actually where I'm supposed to be. I mean, the last two years, I've thrown with my arm slot a little low, because I had that little issue. I've kept my mouth shut for a while. I just had to get this done and get cleaned up.

"Like I said, I'm fine. My arm slot's going to be a lot better. My offspeed [pitches are] a lot sharper. The ball's coming down to a point. It's not coming flat."

If he can keep it that way, he might again have a career on the rise. Any shot he had to be a closer in Detroit anytime soon likely vanished when the Tigers signed Jose Valverde to a two-year contract. But he has enough eighth-inning experience to be a strong setup man if he stays healthy.

The Tigers' bullpen is deep in talent, probably deeper than it has been in a long time. But manager Jim Leyland admits Zumaya is a big key because of what he brings.

"I think the bullpen's going to be pretty good, particularly if Zumaya's healthy," Leyland said Wednesday. "Everybody says he is, but you don't know that until we get out there."

Zumaya doesn't consider his health as a question anymore. His performance is now the key.

"Basically, I feel fine," Zumaya said. "I'm not even on a rehab program. I'm already on my sixth 'pen [session]. I'm way advanced on some of these guys. Once [workouts] come around, I'm going to be ready."

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

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