Zumaya out for season with fractured elbow
Tigers reliever adamant about returning from latest injury
MINNEAPOLIS -- Joel Zumaya's elbow is fractured. His heart and his head are in surprisingly good shape.
He's perfectly fine admitting that injuries have become a recurring theme in his career. However, so have his comebacks. After getting the diagnosis of a season-ending injury from an MRI exam and X-rays taken Tuesday, he believes he can bounce back from this one, too.
"In the back of my head, I went [back to the team hotel] last night and said I've had enough of it," Zumaya said. "But in the back of my head, I'm just strong-willed like that. I won't give up. I'll fight through that.
"I got some really, really satisfying news today. I left it in God's hands, and I guess he gave me another blessing [that it's] not Tommy John [surgery]."
Tommy John surgery is for torn ligaments. Zumaya has a fracture of his olecranon, the bony tip of the elbow. Because it's a non-displaced fracture, there's hope he can avoid any surgery and let it heal on its own, though follow-up tests will determine that.
"We got probably the best, worst news we could get," manager Jim Leyland tried to explain.
Surgery or no, Zumaya will be out at least four months, which wipes out the rest of the season for him. But head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said he's "very optimistic" Zumaya will be ready to pitch again next year.
As devastating as his latest injury was, sending one of baseball's most intimidating pitchers to the ground in excruciating pain, Rand has seen too much from Zumaya to rule him out now.
"I'll tell you, Joel Zumaya has been through probably three of the most unique injuries a pitcher will ever go through," Rand said. "And he's made it through to get out on the mound. He's done a tremendous job. The shoulder injury he had was significant. The finger he had was significant. And he's been able to overcome those and come back and throw 98-100 mph.
"I mean, it's amazing. It really is. It's literally amazing what he has done up to this point. And as a result of that, I obviously don't count him out. I think he'll do a great job again."
That's the flip side of Zumaya's injury history, the part that often has been so often overlooked. He has wondered aloud the last few years whether he was on his last shot, pondered sometimes whether an arm is supposed to throw a baseball 100 mph time after time, if he'd one day have the catastrophic injury that ends it. But as long as he has a chance, he's taking it.
Zumaya was warming up for an appearance in May 2007 when he felt something pop. He was taken into the training room clutching at his hand, then discovered he had ruptured a tendon in his right middle finger. He was gripping the ball so tightly that his finger gave out.
He made it back for the stretch run of a playoff race, but suffered a more severe injury when he dislocated the AC joint in his shoulder that October in an accident at his family's home in San Diego. It was such a severe injury, such an unusual one in baseball, that the best example the Tigers could find was Ken Caminiti, a third baseman.
"My shoulder's by far the worst injury I've had," Zumaya said Tuesday. "They'll tell you they didn't know if I'd come back with my shoulder."
Not only did he make it back by the end of June, his triple-digit fastball was still intact. But he was back on the disabled list by the middle of August, diagnosed with a stress fracture in the same shoulder. That injury, doctors said, was more common to NFL quarterbacks than Major League pitchers.
"I almost gave up after this one," he admitted last year. "I was tired of going through all the stuff I had to. Rehab, it stinks."
Noted orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews told Zumaya he could avoid surgery and be the same pitcher. Again, he worked his way back to pitching shape, rejoining the team a few weeks into last season. He was back throwing 100 mph by the time his rehab assignment was over at Triple-A Toledo.
Then came a 35-pitch outing at Yankee Stadium coming out of the All-Star break. Somewhere during that outing, his shoulder started bothering him again. He finished out his inning, his shoulder throbbing, came back into the dugout and let it out. He couldn't lift up his arm.
Upon further review, it wasn't the stress fracture itself bothering him, but a hanging bone shard that was causing him pain. He'd need surgery to remove it after all. Back to the DL.
He didn't want to sound too optimistic when he reported to Spring Training this year. But without any major setbacks, even so much as a hiccup, he was finally healthy. And again, the fastball was back.
"That's all I wanted was just one full year of health," Zumaya said, "and I worked hard for it."
Zumaya pitched in 62 games as a rookie in 2006. He hadn't pitched in 30 games in a season since then until he pitched Saturday at Atlanta. His contract for 2010 included a $20,000 bonus if he pitched in 35 games this year. Monday night was his 31st.
Then came his 3-2 pitch to Delmon Young.
"The last thing I remember is delivering a pitch," he said. "I have no clue where the pitch went, didn't even know it was fouled. Instantly I felt very, very sharp pain. I was down for the count. I've never been taken down on the ground like last night."
That's the symptom of the fracture -- sharp, intense pain.
"It felt like my elbow exploded," Zumaya said. "It just felt like someone took a hammer and shattered my elbow. For a minute, I didn't know where the pain was coming from. But when I went to grab my elbow, the way the pop felt, I just instantly thought it was the elbow."
He never had an elbow injury before -- soreness, sure, but never anything serious. The way his elbow felt out there, he felt this was it.
"I've never even flinched an elbow, never thought about an elbow injury," he said. "I've heard people explain to me how things happen with Tommy John [surgery], and that's why when I felt my elbow just go, I instantly thought that my career was over."
He could care less about the contract bonus. He's looking at the bigger question: Why him?
"I think me and my wife talked about this all night last night," he said. "I mean, she was trying to give me an answer, but I think there's no answer. I'm not going to get surgery, but this is another injury. It's a freak thing again.
"I guess I'm a freak, but that's just a part of this game. It's a tough game, and a lot of people don't know what our bodies go through out there. They go through some stuff."
Zumaya has been through more than most. But so far, he has made it back from all of it. On Tuesday, getting back to the park meant plenty for him.
"I cried in front of 40,000 people," he said. "It's pretty weak, but I mean, I was in a lot of pain and I felt like I just had no one on my side. But when these people got up on their feet and started cheering, they knew what was going on. Especially my team after the game, I had the whole entire team in there just comforting me. It meant a lot to me just to be in here.
"I got my uniform on with one arm, so maybe I'll start throwing lefty."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.