Zumaya delivers game ball; hopes to return

Zumaya delivers game ball; hopes to return

DETROIT -- This wasn't the way Joel Zumaya wanted to be coming to Comerica Park for a Tigers postseason game.

Of course he'd rather be warming up in the bullpen for a late-inning appearance. The Tigers would rather have him there, too, than greeting him as a guest. Injuries have detoured his career since his rookie season of 2006, when he looked like a dominant closer in waiting for the American League champions.

"You know, it chaps me in my butt a little bit that I'm not out here with the team," Zumaya said, "and I'm not capable of doing what I'm doing. But it does bring a lot of memories. I've been watching the team since Day 1, watching all of their games. ... It brought a lot of memories, especially when they clinched it. I wish I was there. It looks like it would be fun."

He hopes to be back again. His work this fall is raising his hopes, cautious as they are, that he might make it back.

Zumaya delivered the game ball to the mound for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night. His usual entrance music for games he pitches played as he walked to the mound with a loud ovation from fans at Comerica Park, whom he then tried to make louder by raising his arms.

Zumaya missed this season with elbow soreness coming off surgery in the summer of 2010, but he has been able to rehab his elbow back to throwing shape rather than resorting to another surgery. He has been throwing off a mound at the Tigers' Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., and is on track to throw in at least a couple games in the Florida instructional league. If all goes well, he'll then throw winter ball somewhere.

He's had enough comebacks and setbacks that he's almost sheepish talking about it. But even after all that, he can't hide his optimism.

"I want to say I feel terrible," Zumaya said. "Each time I say I feel good, I end up hurt."

Still, he added, "the ball is coming out easier than I've ever thrown. I'm throwing with less effort than I used to. I mean, more velocity [than recently]. I've been working on some pretty good changeups and breaking balls. Everything has fallen into place."

The key steps, though, are to come, and not just on the mound. Zumaya is a free agent this winter, and while the Tigers have put in their work to get Zumaya back throwing again, they haven't yet approached the idea of signing him for next season.

A successful winter ball stint could go a long way toward changing that. But a low-risk deal to bring in a reliever capable of throwing a 100-mph fastball could be appealing to a lot of teams. It's possible Zumaya, if he stays healthy, could pick his situation.

The way Zumaya sounds right now, he wants it to be here. The reception he has received since flying here last Saturday and being greeted by one passenger after another on his flight has had an impact on him.

"I don't know where I'm going to end up next year," he said. "Hopefully it's here. I love this place."

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.