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 Two Tigers have the power to throw fireballs!

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PostSubject: Two Tigers have the power to throw fireballs!   Fri Mar 06, 2009 12:23 am

Thursday, March 5, 2009
Two Tigers have the power to overwhelm
Zumaya, Perry throw 100-mph fastball but location makes it hot.
Lynn Henning / The Detroit News

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Joel Zumaya remembers a game from 2006, against Oakland, when Frank Thomas stood at the plate waiting to unload his mass and muscle against one of the Tigers right-hander's triple-digit-touching fastballs.

Zumaya recalls the moment not because of what he or Thomas did during a single pitcher-batter duel. But, rather, it sticks in Zumaya's mind for what he saw happen at home plate.


"It was the only time I've seen someone intimidated," Zumaya said. "I came up and in on him with a fastball at 98 (mph). And after that his next two swings were not near what they were on that first one."

Zumaya is a high-profile member of an exclusive pitching club: those who can throw a pitch 100 mph. The Tigers have another budding card-holder in Ryan Perry, their first-round draft pick from 2008 who has sent radar-gun readings into another realm, including a 104-mph clocking during a NCAA Tournament game last spring at Ann Arbor.

What baseball's hardest throwers achieve with fastballs that are a cut above the norm, which are those that cruise well beyond 95 mph, is remarkable for what they can, and cannot, accomplish against big league hitters.

"It's a whole different ballgame at 98 or 99," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, offering the qualifier all big league players cite. "But I don't care how hard a pitcher throws. If they're not locating it, big league hitters will hit it. They'll hit a bullet."

Softer makes it harder

A slower-paced bullet is another matter. Hitters, pitchers, managers -- anyone in baseball -- understand a sound-barrier-busting fastball is only as good as the off-speed or breaking pitch that is served alongside it.

Zumaya became a shutdown switch in Leyland's bullpen in 2006 not only because he was introducing radar guns to new digits. It was because of a knee-buckling curveball that he could use to paralyze a hitter gearing up for his fastball.

"It's tough, it's hard," Marcus Thames said of hitting against upper-tier fastballs, "but if you don't have a good slider or off-speed pitch to go with it, it's just one pitch, and you (a hitter) can get ready for that.

"A guy like Jenks (Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox closer whose fastball can reach the upper 90s), he has two or three other pitches. A major league pitcher can spot all that stuff."

Tigers catcher Gerald Laird is now catching Zumaya's fastball rather than trying to hit it. During five big league seasons with Texas, Laird says the hardest pitches he ever batted against came from Zumaya.

"You don't see that every day, someone who can throw 6-7 miles per hour over the top guys in the league," Laird remembers of Zumaya pitches he believes hit "103, 104" during a couple of memorable at-bats.

Even catching a pitch that touches triple digits poses its challenges, Laird said.

"It's different," he said. "It's a little easier to catch when you know it's coming. But it gets there pretty fast.

Laird said of Zumaya's fastball: "Now I know why it's so hard to hit."

Laird and Thames agree high-90s fastballs involve a fine-line approach that explains why hitting a speeding baseball is the toughest task in sports.

"People say you've got to start (the swing) earlier," Laird said, "but you've also got to stay relaxed. Automatically, guys tend to swing harder or faster against faster pitches, but your muscles work faster when they're loose."

Thames says a hitter who can swing a bat faster than a pitcher can throw a baseball must remember that he is not, at least technically, overmatched.

"You've just got to make sure you're ready to hit it," Thames said. "It's tough. But it's still one pitch, and you can get ready for that."

The separation occurs when a pitcher's high-speed motion instead delivers a surprise. Hitters who can handle a fastball at any speed must adjust in a split-second to a change-up or to a breaking ball that can travel 15-20 mph slower.

"You've got to gear up for the fastball, which is why when you flip them that change-up or curveball, it makes that fastball so much better," Laird said. "The great closers always have that off-speed pitch: K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez, Mets) has a slider and a change. Hoffman (Trevor, Milwaukee) has the change-up. Jones (Todd, retired Tigers closer) came at you with strikes and with three or four good pitches.

"Closers are never afraid to challenge you with the fastball. But it's not like they have one pitch."

Doubt elevates challenge

Al Kaline, the Tigers special assistant whose playing career put him into the Hall of Fame, says the challenge of hitting a high-90s or 100-mph fastball has been diluted by an evolutionary change in baseball's ways.

"The high-90s fastball is not a high-90s fastball anymore because the strike zone is so low," said Kaline, a member of baseball's hallowed 3,000-hit club. "You throw that high-90s pitch belt-high to the middle of the plate and it's no big deal to major league hitters."

Kaline acknowledges, more readily than players who are still competing, that the hardest-thrown pitches include a psychological component: getting hit by a baseball can be brutal.

"Guys get a little gun-shy," said Kaline, who was known during his career for a quick response to pitchers who had dusted him: He often hit the next pitch into the seats.

Perry, the 100-mph right-hander whom the Tigers drafted last June, says college hitters who could catch up with his fastball on a par with big league hitters would also, on occasion, flinch.

"Yeah, a lot," Perry said. "No one wants to get hit by a 100-mph fastball. There's always doubt (fear) in their mind, whether they want to admit it or not. You can see it in their approach. They step into the box a bit more antsy."

Kaline says the hardest-throwers who have mastery of more than one pitch can make life all but impossible for a hitter. One of the best power-pitchers in baseball history sparked a single day's decision in 1973 that Kaline still regrets almost 40 years later.

Nolan Ryan was starting for the California Angels in a May game against the Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Ryan was 26 and on his way to becoming baseball's all-time strikeouts leader. He had a 100-mph fastball and a curveball that turned hitters into paralytics. He was two months from throwing one of his seven career no-hitters in another start against the Tigers at Tiger Stadium.

Kaline was 38 in May of 1973 and less than 18 months from retirement. He stepped into manager Ralph Houk's office.

"Ralph, I think you ought to play someone else," said Kaline, who believed he no longer had the reflexes or the responses to handle Ryan's best stuff.

"I still have bad dreams about that," Kaline said. "That's embarrassing."

Kaline is not consoled by the thought he was leveling with Houk -- that age had robbed him of his best chance to be effective against a power-pitcher 12 years younger.

"Someone else had to go 0-for-4 for me," Kaline said, still upset at making one request ahead of one game during a 21-year career of pure majesty.

Zumaya appreciates what hard, heavy pitches can do to a hitter -- and for what good hitters can do to a pitcher's best efforts.

He understands, too, that bracing for a 100-mph pitch is not for the weak-kneed.


"I can kill someone easily," Zumaya said, in a voice almost somber. "It's a scary thing to think about.

"It's a hot day, you're sweating, the ball slips coming out of your hand. It's a scary thought."

Kaline, the hitter, has a different response. He notes that Zumaya "has that little bit of wildness.

"And I hope he doesn't lose it."


That's the retired hitter speaking, of course. The guys in the opposing lineup might, in this instance, respectfully disagree with a Hall of Famer.

You can reach Lynn Henning at lynn.henning@detnews.com


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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PostSubject: Re: Two Tigers have the power to throw fireballs!   Sat Mar 07, 2009 5:21 pm

Yeah!
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