FORT MYERS, Fla. – The fireballer has flamed out once again, and this time it may be for good.
Minnesota Twins reliever Joel Zumaya was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his right elbow on Sunday, meaning his latest comeback bid has ended almost before it began.
Zumaya had signed an incentive-laden, one-year deal with the Twins, who hoped he could bolster their bullpen with his 100 mph heat. General manager Terry Ryan knew Zumaya's long injury history when he offered the contract, but the possibility of getting the overpowering arm that electrified the Tigers in 2006 intrigued him.
"I took a risk. It was a high risk with high reward," Ryan said after the MRI exam revealed the torn ulnar collateral ligament. "Unfortunately it didn't work. And he feels bad. I feel bad."
Zumaya lasted just 13 pitches in his first session of live batting practice Saturday before walking off the mound with pain in his elbow. Ryan spoke with him on Sunday after they received the news, but said it was too early to talk about Zumaya's plans for the future.
The 27-year-old could choose to have Tommy John surgery and start another exhaustive rehab program that could last a year or longer. Or he could choose to retire.
"He's distraught, as you'd expect," Ryan said of Zumaya, who was unavailable for comment. "He's going to come in here in the next day or so and we're going to talk about the immediate future for him."
Zumaya had not thrown a pitch since June 2010 after breaking his elbow while pitching for Detroit in a game at Target Field. He has never been better than in his rookie season with the Tigers, when he was a 21-year-old blast furnace who struck out 97 hitters in 83 1-3 innings and became one of the most feared setup men in the game.
Injuries to his wrist, finger and shoulder followed, limiting him to fewer than 40 innings in each of the next four seasons. Then his elbow snapped in 2010, a frightening scene that led some to wonder if his body could withstand the sheer force of the pitches he uncorked.
But he had never torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, a common and devastating injury that usually requires surgery and at least 12 months of rehab before a pitcher is ready to get back on the mound.
After a long and arduous rehabilitation of his broken elbow, Zumaya worked out for several teams this winter. Looking for a right-hander at the back end of their bullpen to complement left-handed setup man Glen Perkins and closer Matt Capps, the Twins offered him $850,000. The contract is only guaranteed for $400,000.
"It's ironic that he tore this ligament because that was one of the area's he was healthy," Ryan said. "But when you have something break, sometimes other things go, too, and that's the chance you take. And that's the chance we took, I took. I'll take full responsibility for the decision, it just didn't work. It's as simple as that."
But Ryan said he didn't regret the decision to sign Zumaya.
"Sometimes you have to take chances," Ryan said. "It seemed like a worthwhile chance."
Zumaya had only been in the clubhouse for a couple of weeks, but he'd already managed to make a strong impression with the team. He pitched against the Twins for the Tigers and manager Ron Gardenhire said he quickly grew to like the heavily tattooed reliever who electrified Detroit's run to the World Series as a rookie in 2006.
"He looks like some monster out there pitching against you," Gardenhire said. "But you get him in your clubhouse and you realize there's special people and he's a special person and it's a really sad day for him and his family and our baseball team, too, because we were all hoping this guy would be able to get back on this thing and make it through. Unfortunately it didn't work out."
Left-hander Francisco Liriano was taken aback when he heard the news.
"Wow," said Liriano, who had Tommy John surgery in 2006. "I feel bad for him. He's been hurt probably every year. Wow."
Now the Twins have to look elsewhere among the 33 pitchers they brought to camp to help shore up their bullpen. Players like Anthony Swarzak, Alex Burnett, Jared Burton and Kyle Waldrop could get looks, even though none of them have strong histories of late-inning relief roles.
"If I'm one of those guys down in that clubhouse, well, there's some innings there to be had, I'd better go out there and get 'em," Ryan said. "You want to make the team? Let's go."
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