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Published: Tuesday, 10/3/2006

Zumaya starts career as stopper

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

NEW YORK - The Detroit Tigers converted Joel Zumaya from starter to reliever in spring training.

The 21-year-old rookie has been delivering as the set-up man ever since leaving Lakeland, Fla.

Although Zumaya finished the regular season with just one save, he was 6-3 with a 1.94 ERA and struck out 97 batters in 831/3 innings. He also had 30 holds, ranking him second-best in the league.

The hard-throwing right-hander, whose fastball regularly registers triple digits on the radar gun, carries a 1.40 ERA in his last 46 appearances into tonight's AL division series opener against the New York Yankees.

"Before the season started, we had a split contingent in our organization as to whether Zumaya should be a starter or reliever," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowksi said. "But in the end, we figured it would be more conducive for him to be in the bullpen.

"We figured he would enjoy success much more quickly that way, because he could just come out, rear back and let it fly."

That's just what Zumaya has done.

He is one of 10 finalists for the Delivery Man of the Year Award, which will be announced during the playoffs. He is the only non-closer on the list, joining New York's Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Bobby Jenks, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan, Jonathan Papelbon, J.J. Putz and Billy Wagner.

This season has more than exceeded Zumaya's expectations.

"I never thought I'd be in a pennant race and in the playoffs in my first year as a major leaguer," he said. "And I never thought I'd have the results that I have had, either.

"I think I shocked a lot of people by becoming a good reliever so quickly. No. 59 [Todd Jones] has helped me out a lot, and so has Jamie Walker. They gave me the inside scoop. I took it all in and learned from it."

Zumaya eventually hopes to succeed Jones as the Tigers' closer.

"I'm just going to keep working hard and keep trying to get better," he said. "I want to be the best reliever in the game."

STRONG FINISH: Shortstop Carlos Guillen batted .348 in 68 games after the All-Star break despite battling an assortment of injuries.

He scored 49 runs during that stretch, while collecting 15 doubles, nine homers, three triples and 33 RBIs.

Guillen also finished the year with 41 doubles, the most by a Tigers player since Deivi Cruz banged out 46 in 2000.

"I've just tried to stay healthy and produce when I am up at the plate," said Guillen, who batted a team-high .320 overall. "I've been swinging the bat pretty well the second half of the season, and I don't see any reason why I can't continue that in the playoffs."

WINGING IT: The Tigers are making their first trip to the playoffs since Mike Ilitch bought the team from Tom Monaghan in 1992.

Ilitch, a former minor league player in the Detroit organization, couldn't be happier.

"This is one of the highlights of my life," said Ilitch, who has won three Stanley Cup championships as owner of the Red Wings. "This is the sport I grew up playing as a kid.

"There's a lot of competition in baseball. Not that there's not in hockey, but it's just a bigger sport. The stadiums are bigger, and there are three times as many scouts. Everything is bigger."



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