This is beginning to look all too familiar. Once again, the Tigers blow another late-inning lead, wasting an excellent effort by the starting pitcher, and leaving all of us to wonder just what the hell is going on. As Kurt wrote today at Mack Avenue Tigers, the bullpen is having serious problems right now, and a part of the team that was expected to be rock-solid dependable now is full of question marks.
And there's no bigger question right now than, "What's up with Joel Zumaya?" After watching that eighth inning again - with some of the shock and emotion having worn off - I'm beginning to wonder if he's dealing with the same issues that sometimes plague Josh Beckett of the Red Sox. Beckett often falls in love with his fastball, and tries to assert his dominance over hitters by constantly trying to blow heat past them. He then either loses the strike zone as he tries to throw each pitch even harder, or gives the batters a chance to time the fastball because they know what's coming.
This is exactly what Jim Leyland was talking about when he said Zumaya needed to "work on the art of pitching." It's especially baffling because he's been so good with that curveball in this early part of the season. Hitters have absolutely no idea how to handle it, so they wait for the fastball. And then Zumaya gives it to them, which results in big hits.
Are Zumaya's mechanics messing with his location? Is there an injury that might be taking some gas out of that fastball? Both questions seem valid after watching his struggles in the past two games. But the issues could also be in Zumaya's head. His post-game comments about wanting to come in and get the fans excited by putting big numbers on the radar gun concern me. Don't play to the crowd. Sure, they love to see 102 m.p.h. on the scoreboard, but ultimately, what everyone wants to see from Zumaya is getting batters out.
It's encouraging that Zumaya is acknowledging that this is a learning experience he needs to go through, and it might end up making him and the Tigers better in the long run. But for now, it's extremely discouraging to see them lose the kinds of games they were winning so frequently last year. And if Zumaya doesn't break out of this funk soon, that learning curve might smack his team right back in the face.