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Published: Monday, 6/9/2008

Relievers' rehab watched closely by Tigers' brass

Tigers manager Jim Leyland and three of his coaches - Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon and Jeff Jones - came to Fifth Third Field last night seeking good vibes from two guys who have been experiencing bad mojo for way too long.

Flash back to the summer of '06, that magic ride by Detroit to 100-plus wins and the World Series.

Leyland punched up a dominant formula - six innings from the starters, then Joel Zumaya in the seventh, moving the radar gun right to tilt, leaving batters swinging at hot air. Then Fernando Rodney in the eighth, not matching Zumaya's triple figures on the gun, but holding his own in the mid-90s with a devastating change-up that paralyzed would-be hitters. Finally, the closer, Todd Jones, got the call in the ninth. Game over.

Ah, for the good, old days.

Zumaya and Rodney were in and out of the lineup with injuries in 2007, rarely able to make their 1-2 impact as the Tigers fought gamely but came up short, and neither has donned the Olde English D yet in '08 as Detroit struggles to mount a bid.

But both are on the rehab trail and both pitched for the Mud Hens last night in a 5-4 loss to Columbus. The Tigers' brass, fresh from an afternoon win over Cleveland, made the trip down I-75 to see it with their own eight eyes.

Rodney has made all three of his rehab appearances with Toledo and velocity has not been a big problem. Location has been a different story and he said he continued to struggle "with my mechanics and balance" last night. Rodney fell into 3-0 holes to three of the five batters he faced and Columbus' Ed Rogers relocated a 91-mph fastball some 365 feet over the left-field fence. On the flip side, Rodney did strike out the side in his one inning of work, finishing off all three batters with his change-up.

Zumaya, who made two solid appearances against Class A opponents in Florida, had another in his first test at a higher level. The gun registered 98 on his first pitch from a full windup, but a left-handed hitter pulled a shot into right that was caught for the third out. He threw 11 pitches, seven of them strikes. Yes, solid.

Zumaya's bid to get back to Detroit is nothing short of impressive thus far. Folks may be aware of his story, but maybe not of the severity of his shoulder injury.

He was at his parents' home near San Diego last October as the southern California wildfires moved to within two miles of their property. Joel was up in the attack helping his brother retrieve some valuables when a 50-pound box fell on his right shoulder.

Zumaya suffered a shoulder separation - on a scale of 1 to 5, we're talking a 5 - and needed reconstructive surgery. For his comeback to have arrived at Triple-A in early June must be considered ahead of schedule.

The Tigers aren't about to rush either back to the big leagues, although Leyland would be excused for licking his chops.

He said before last night's game that he was looking forward to checking out the two pitchers' progress because "we're getting as close to normal as possible. If you get those two guys back in good health, it shortens up the game a little bit."

He means that the Tigers' bullpen finally seems to be taking shape. A couple of big arms that once meant so much could produce even more good vibes and really help clear the haze over Comerica Park in Detroit.



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