Have we seen the last fastball from Zumaya as a Tiger?

In 2006, Joel Zumaya was a large reason the Tigers advanced to the World Series.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than five years since Joel Zumaya was delighting fans during the Detroit Tigers magical 2006 season.

Not since Mark Fidrych had a rookie pitcher captured the attention of Tiger faithful in Motown. But unlike “The Bird”, Zumaya came out of the bullpen as a setup man. And unlike Fidrych, “Zoom Zoom” harnesses a fastball that often topped 100 mph.

With a menacing (yet somehow likable) appearance on the mound, Zumaya spawned an allegiance that has rarely been seen in Tiger history. Just as quick as the rookie’s fastball zipped across the plate, Zumaya jerseys were flying off the shelves and fan clubs were popping up. Though he pitched barely more than 80 innings that season (the equivalent of nine Fidrych starts in ’76), Zumaya seemed to be everywhere in the Summer of ’06. Little kids even wore fake soul patches in homage to their fireballing hero.

Just 21 years old in 2006, Zumaya seemed to handle the fame well, which was part of his charm. He was unflappable on the mound, sending down batters with his blinding fastball that came out of his violent windup. Like Goose Gossage and Troy Percival, two legendary relievers with wicked heaters, Zumaya seemed less like he was pitching and more like he was attacking the plate.

Right away, you could tell Zumaya was going to be special. What Jim Leyland had seen during spring training was on display as soon as the regular season started. The rookie fanned 12 of the first 23 batters he faced at the major league level. Though he usually pitched one inning at a time, he usually recorded 2-3 strikeouts. In a game against Tampa Bay he fanned five in two innings and scorched the radar gun with a 106-mph fastball. Even with fellow rookie Justin Verlander on the team, Zumaya seemed to be throwing the ball harder than anyone possibly could.

In the ALDS against the favored Yankees, Zumaya fanned three Bombers in two innings and helped the Tigers vanquish the New Yorkers. The native of southern California proved human during the World Series, however, committing a critical throwing error that helped open the floodgates for the Cardinals. But, he was just a rookie, and fans forgave him.

But, unfortunately Tiger fans have had little to cheer about when it comes to Zumaya since then. He has suffered smorgasbord of injuries since, some usual for a hard thrower and some bizarre. He hurt his shoulder when he was lifting an air conditioner. He tore a tendon playing a video game. He missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing surgery on that million dollar right arm.

Now he’s 27 years old and a free agent, hoping to get a chance to pitch again in the major leagues. In workouts for big league scouts in December, at least one of the “zooms” was there – he threw in the mid-90s. But one official who saw Zumaya throw doubted that the big right-hander would pass a MLB physical. There are doubts that his fragile arm and violent throwing motion can be counted on.

In his five seasons, Zumaya has thrown 209 2/3 innings and struck out 210 batters – one punch out per inning – a good ratio. Based on that and the fact that he’s still young enough to turn around his injury-riddled career, some team will probably offer Zumaya at least a minor league contract. The likelihood that it will be with the Tigers decreases with every passing week this off-season.

Whether he ever throws another heater for the Tigers or not, Zoom Zoom will always have a special place in Tiger lore.