Zumaya showing new maturity on mound

Zumaya showing new maturity

CLEVELAND -- The Voodoo Child is gone.

It almost sounded like an omission when Joel Zumaya ran in from the Comerica Park bullpen on April 29. Though the usual scoreboard effects were there, the Jimi Hendrix riffs and power lyrics that had followed Zumaya to the mound so many times before were not. It could've slipped through the cracks when Zumaya wasn't around at season's start, except that Zumaya, like many players, notices those things.

"I got rid of it, because it's in the past now," Zumaya said over the weekend. "I want to start fresh, and I came out to something a little bit stronger."

Zumaya hasn't gone the opposite direction and replaced it with a snippet of elevator music. With Slayer's speed-metal classic "Raining Blood," Zumaya still has an intense piece of music to welcome him. It's just a little heavier song for a guy with some heavier weight on his shoulders.

"Voodoo Child" is gone, even if the reliever behind it is back. The way his past two years have gone, though, a fresh start really appeals to him.

He's maturing from a 100-mph arm into a solid late-inning reliever. He's also moving on, little by little, from the kid with sudden fame in 2006 toward a family man with grownup pressures and seemingly constant scrutiny.

He nearly lost his career. Now that he's back, he's ready to shed his young aura and recent struggles.

"I just don't want to be one of those guys, and I've seen it, where you have one great year and your name's never to be heard of [again]," Zumaya said. "You say my name and, 'Oh, he was an '06 Tiger.' I want to be someone who's going to be remembered for a while."

He was certainly cognizant of that as he struggled to build up his shoulder last winter from the stress fracture that ended his 2008 season. The shoulder surgery after the '07 season cost him the first half of the '08 campaign. A ruptured tendon in the right middle finger cost him half the '07 season.

Detroit has had its share of short-term sensations, from Mark Fidrych to Matt Anderson. But Zumaya's injuries were each unusual and frustrating. As he pointed out, he has yet to have a typical throwing injury. His shoulder, with its hairline fracture, resembles that of a pro quarterback.

"You have to understand," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said in Spring Training. "He's gone through an awful lot."

Zumaya went through enough that, as he tried to throw again over the offseason, he at least thought about a career after baseball. Why go through that regimen, day after day, only to get hurt again?

"I almost gave up after this one," he admitted. "I was tired of going through all the stuff I had to. Rehab, it stinks."

What helps drive Zumaya, what few people see, is a support group that remained stronger as Zumaya's road back seemingly became tougher.

His family in San Diego is tight-knit. His father, Joel Sr., worked for years building kitchens, but faced his own road back a few years ago. He broke his leg playing with his boys in a pickup football game. After a long road, he's back on the job.

Joel Sr. and mom, Yvonne, instilled a work ethic in the Tigers' Zumaya. His younger brother, Richard, turned pro and joined the Tigers' farm system two years ago.

Just as much strength has come from building a family of his own. Zumaya married his high school sweetheart last year. Not only does Rachel know where Joel came from, but her personality complements so many of her husband's traits.

"When I'm in pain, I keep it to myself pretty good," Zumaya said. "And she knows when there's something wrong. She'll get it out of me. She didn't marry a guy who's just going to give up. She knows how strong I am, and she knows how hard I work for all this stuff.

"From there in '06, when you have that good of a year coming in, no one knows you, and you're only 21, she always kept me on that humble level. And she'd keep reminding me."

And now they're going to be parents. Their son is due later this summer. They've already picked out the name Marley for him, after another of Zumaya's musical inspirations.

For Zumaya, known by so many for having the enthusiasm of a kid when he takes the field, parenthood will be a transition from sometimes feeling like a kid to raising one. It's more of a motivation than any injury or any criticism can provide.

"I'm the person they rely on," Zumaya said. "And me, without this job, I don't know what I'd be doing. This is what I love. That's why I'm gradually changing, little by little, from that kid stage. Because it's finally clicking in my head, this could've been gone a year ago. I have it still, so I don't want to mess it up."

Those are his internal forces. The outside pressures, the public scrutiny, have toughened him up. Even if he doesn't read the critiques, the projections on his career since the injuries, he's conscious of them.

When teammate Curtis Granderson gave Zumaya kudos for pregame catches at the outfield fence, Zumaya knew fans might question him for it and others might not like it, even though he's far from the only one.

"If the fans come out early enough in BP, they'll see a lot of our pitchers doing it," Granderson said.

A recent article breaking down Zumaya's repertoire topped 4,000 words.

"There were a lot of people that had doubts that I was going to be able to come back and throw like I used to," Zumaya said, "and there still are a lot of doubters out there. There are a lot of people out there that still think that the way I throw is still going to get me hurt.

"I really don't jump on all that. There's doubters, but there are also a lot of supporters that I have on my back."

Longevity is the reward. Great careers require more than an electric fastball. Zumaya has been aware, but rarely healthy enough to work on it. Once a positive second opinion from Dr. James Andrews cleared him to start throwing in January, he built up his arm with an eye towards changing his game.

The fastball, as he hoped, came back. His rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo last month featured at least two fastballs at 101 mph. He touched 100 mph in his last outing Saturday against the Indians, according to MLB.com's Gameday application.

The difference is the other pitches. While he has thrown his curveball and changeup every year, he's doing more with them for strikes. The changeup was a Spring Training project with new pitching coach Rick Knapp. The breaking ball is repetition, including a nasty one he threw to Grady Sizemore Saturday.

Zumaya has thrown 62 percent of his pitches for strikes in his career. He's just 71 pitches into the 2009 season, but 50 have been strikes, a 70-percent rate. Through six innings, he has no walks and one 3-0 count.

"His bread and butter is his fastball," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Sunday, "but you have to throw enough breaking balls to keep him honest. He's doing fine."

He's doing well, and not just for his innings. He loves watching and talking with rookies Ryan Perry and Rick Porcello. He gets a kick out of passing on a tip or two like Todd Jones did with him. In a bullpen without a clear-cut leader, he's now part of the core group.

Voodoo Child or no, Zumaya is maturing.

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