- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

DETROIT. — A year ago, he was pitching in places like Erie and Toledo for a losing organization.

Now he stands ready to become the biggest star in baseball’s biggest showcase, the World Series, when the Detroit Tigers face the St. Louis Cardinals tonight in Game 1 at Comerica Park — if he makes an appearance.

You can be sure the fans will be hoping he does, and you can be sure Fox is hoping that at some point tonight, Tigers manager Jim Leyland will come out of the dugout and point to the bullpen to call on the most electric pitcher in the postseason.

They call him Zumaya. I’m not sure most of his fans know his first name is Joel.

The career of the 21-year-old right-hander has sped along as fast as the now legendary 103 mph fastballs he was throwing against the New York Yankees in the Division Series — striking out Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez to become the talk of the country.

It wasn’t, “Did you see the Tigers last night?” It was, “Did you see that kid Zumaya last night?”

You can expect the same water cooler conversations over the next week or so.

Even his disappearance in the last two games of the American League Championship Series against Oakland because of a wrist injury didn’t diminish Zumaya Fever. His is the hottest-selling jersey in Detroit, and it may not be long before someone starts marketing Zumaya radar guns for fans. That would be Zumaya’s dream: a ballpark full of radar guns with him lighting them all up at more than 100 mph.

“I look at the gun every time,” Zumaya said when asked if he paid attention to the ballpark radar guns that register pitch speeds. “I won’t lie. I will tell you where every single gun is in the stadium after the game. I have to learn not to do that.”

Zumaya had better enjoy it while he can, because fireballers tend to flame out.

He said he first noticed a 100 mph reading on a radar gun in the minor leagues last season.

“My first game in Erie, it was real cold, and I got hit around a couple of times and got really upset, and I reared back and threw it. I looked at the gun and it didn’t have three digits on it. It just said ‘zero, zero.’ Everyone was, ‘Whoa, he threw it more than 100 miles an hour. He must be really mad.’”

The kid from Chula Vista, Calif., grew up fascinated by hard throwers from Nolan Ryan to Randy Johnson.

“I loved Randy Johnson,” Zumaya said. “I still love the guy. When I would see him explode that bird, it’s crazy.”

Now Zumaya is ready to send Tigers fans into a frenzy with his stuff again after being sidelined with an inflamed wrist at the end of the ALCS.

“It’s going to be a good time,” Zumaya said. “We faced the Cardinals earlier this year, and we swept them. Now, I’m not saying it is going to be that easy, because this is a whole different atmosphere right now. This is the World Series. I’m 110 percent. After we won, after Magglio [Ordonez] hit that home run [in Game 4 against Oakland to clinch the ALCS), it felt like there was never anything wrong with my wrist. I was ready to pitch that game if they needed me. I’m fine.”

Of course, what would be the baseball version of King Kong vs. Godzilla would be a matchup between Zumaya and Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. If Zumaya wins that battle, expect to see some fist-pumping because he loves to show emotion and get respect from batters, such as when A-Rod turned to the umpire after one of Zumaya’s pitches whizzed by and asked, “Did you see that pitch?”

Said Zumaya: “Sometimes batters will show a little emotion. They’ll grind their teeth or they will look away a little bit. I had a chance to see A-Rod turn and smile a couple of times when I was pitching. He knows I’m bringing it.”

An 11th-round pick by Detroit in 2002, Zumaya didn’t know much about the Tigers. He grew up a San Diego Padres fan and hoped he would be drafted by them. So he went to his baseball expert for information about the Tigers organization — his grandmother back in Chula Vista, Tammy Gomez.

“My grandmother explained to me what was wrong with the Tigers and how they had been struggling, and [she said] if I go in there and work hard, I have a great opportunity to be up in the majors fast,” Zumaya said. “That was my attitude every time I went to the mound and look, here we are, in 2006 and the Detroit Tigers are going for a world championship.”

Yes, it was Zumaya’s grandmother who gave him the organizational breakdown, just as she offers scouting reports on hitters from time to time.

“My grandmother is the biggest baseball fan I know,” he said. “She knows everything. When I am struggling and I might need some inside scoop on some things, I will call her and she will let me know. She is like a scout. I will say, ‘Grandma, do you have this on someone?’ and she will say, ‘Yeah, he is batting this against righties.’”

Here is the scouting report on Zumaya: He struck out 97 batters in 83 innings in his rookie year, with a 1.94 ERA and a .187 average by opposing batters. He has a passion for radar guns, and a grandmother who knows your tendencies at the plate.

He is Zumaya.

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