By John Philip Wyllie
Just a few short years ago Chula Vista’s Joel Zumaya was a little used reserve player for the Bonita Vista Barons junior varsity baseball team. Then in his junior year things began to click for the hard throwing 6’3” 210 pound pitcher. Selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 11th round of the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft, Zumaya headed off immediately to rookie ball following his senior year. He followed that up with a mercurial rise through the ranks from Single A to Double A and then last year to Triple A. With the 2006 campaign fast approaching, Zumaya stands an excellent chance of breaking into the majors with the Tigers this season.
Last season, he got his first taste of what it could be like to play in the big leagues. Now he is hungry for more.
“In “A” Ball and “AA” Ball you travel on buses and stay in regular hotels. Once you make it to “AAA” you begin flying on airplanes and staying in five star hotels. Once you hit “AAA” you can feel that you are getting really close,” Zumaya said Sunday in a telephone interview.
Detroit’s pitchers and catchers are not expected to report to their Florida training camp until February 15, but Zumaya has been working out on his own there since January 9.
“I decided to fly down early in order to get ready. I want to shed a few pounds, gain some muscle and focus on earning a spot.”
Zumaya is one of three pitchers that will compete for the fifth slot in the Tigers starting rotation. He is also being considered for a spot in their bullpen. Still only 21, he has far exceeded expectations and is well ahead of many players that were selected higher and initially thought to have more potential.
“Right now I need to improve upon my consistency. I’m a power pitcher and I can throw really hard and strike guys out. I’ve also got a good curve ball and a decent change up. I just need to be more consistent in the strike zone.”
Growing up, Zumaya honed his skills on both sides of the border.
“I played in Tijuana and Tecate for two summers (when he wasn’t playing for the Barons). There is some good baseball being played down there. I learned a lot. It was a great experience,” he said. He couldn’t have done it without the support of his family.
“My Mom and Dad and my Grandma have always been there for me. (Before being drafted) I was playing for four different summer ball teams and I was traveling between Arizona, the Moreno Valley, and Mexico. We used a lot of gas and spent a lot of money traveling. At times, they had to sell a few things so that I could keep playing baseball. They are my number one heroes. They have done so much for me and have always helped to keep my spirits up.”
If Zumaya reaches his goal of making the Tigers 40-man roster, that sacrifice will have been one well worth making.