LAKELAND, Fla. – Joel Zumaya feigned a pitching motion and prepared to field a grounder at the mound — only he did it a little too early, and the ball wasn't hit to him right away.
"I've been out too long, baby," he yelled. "I'm ready."
With an excited smile and a healthy right arm, Zumaya was back on the field for the Detroit Tigers in their first workout Monday.
The hard-throwing reliever laughed and joked his way through even the most mundane of drills, his spirits high as he tries to move on from yet another injury.
Zumaya broke his pitching elbow in June, the latest setback for the entertaining right-hander with tattoos on both arms and a fastball that's been known to hit triple digits on the radar gun.
"I just want to go out there and have that healthy year," he said. "I feel really, really good about myself and the way my body feels."
Zumaya helped the Tigers reach the World Series in 2006, but he hasn't pitched more than 31 games in a season since.
In 2007, he ruptured a tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand while warming up, then hurt his right shoulder after the season when a box fell on him while he was trying to help gather items as California wildfires closed in on his parents' house.
Last year's injury might have been the most gruesome. Zumaya collapsed to the mound in pain after throwing a pitch, fearful his career was over. It turned out there was no ligament damage to his elbow, but it was fractured and he was done for the year.
Zumaya said during the offseason he'd be ready to throw without restrictions this spring, and Monday provided no evidence to the contrary.
"It's time for this kid to have some good luck, so we're real thrilled with where he's at. He looks great," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's just free and easy — not much effort there. That's good."
Detroit's pitchers spent much of their time on fielding drills Monday, but they also tossed a few pitches toward the end of the workout. Pitching coach Rick Knapp gathered players around at the start of that session, warning that control is more important that power at this point.
It's hard to tell Zumaya to hold back, but the 26-year-old looked relaxed as he threw to catcher Victor Martinez, one of the team's newest additions.
"He asked me to break in his glove a little bit," Zumaya said. "The coaches don't want us throwing too hard out there right now."
Zumaya is taking pride these days in developing his secondary pitches.
"He's trying to learn an offspeed pitch — something that's going to take some more stress off," Knapp said. "He's going to always be a high-torque guy. I think when he gets in trouble is when he really cranks on it and tries hard."
Zumaya had struck out 34 batters and walked 11 — the best ratio of his career — when he went down last year. If he stays healthy and effective, the Tigers could have quite a bullpen. Closer Jose Valverde was an All-Star last year, and Detroit added Joaquin Benoit in the offseason. Benoit had a 1.34 ERA as a setup man for Tampa Bay in 2010.
"I might be the softest thrower in the bullpen now," said left-hander Daniel Schlereth, who has averaged more than a strikeout an inning in limited duty in his two major league seasons.
At least one newcomer is glad he's a Tiger now — instead of an opposing batter having to face pitchers such as Zumaya in the late innings.
"I'll tell you what," Martinez said. "It's more fun being behind the plate for him than being in the box."