Zumaya brain-locks in key spot

ST. LOUIS -- The soul of the song makes "Voodoo Child" one of Joel Zumaya's favorites. Each time the Tigers right-handed rookie charges out of the bullpen, the Jimi Hendrix tune whistles through the speakers.

But that's at home. In Detroit. And on Tuesday night in Game 3 of the World Series, Zumaya faced a Cardinals' lineup. At their home. Without the music, and maybe a little bit of voodoo hidden in his glove, too, when the 21-year-old made a crucial error in a 5-0 loss to St. Louis.

"I just had my head up my [expletive] out there," Zumaya said. "I pitched like [expletive]."

One of the most intimidating pitchers in the playoffs -- a young rookie with a touted 100-plus mph fastball -- had an incredible season out of the Tigers' bullpen, going 6-3 with a 1.94 ERA as one of manager Jim Leyland's key setup men. But, as Zumaya admitted after Tuesday's game, it all "fell apart." The two-run disadvantage, a chance at a close game, and Zumaya's magic season with hardly a blemish, all disintegrated when he threw away a potential double-play ball in the seventh inning.

Zumaya hadn't pitched since Oct. 10, and the layoff was well-timed, was the universal thinking. His right wrist had swelled a bit due to tendinitis, causing Zumaya a missed week in September, and originally, doubt for his availability in the World Series.

But the Tigers clinched early and waited while Zumaya rested. But it appeared to have cost them on Tuesday, when in the seventh inning and runners on first and second base, and likely the most dangerous hitter on the planet up at the plate.

"A layoff don't make a difference," Zumaya said. "I messed up."

Zumaya had already walked David Eckstein and Preston Wilson -- the first two batters of the inning. His team was down 2-0, and now he had the power-hitting Albert Pujols at the plate. Zumaya was the power-throwing rookie on the mound. Zumaya went after Pujols. Zumaya won.

"I made an absolutely good pitch to hit," Zumaya said. "I threw a two-seam [fastball] and he did what I wanted him to do; he hit it right to me."

With the ball in his glove, all he needed do was throw to second to start a double play. But Zumaya inexplicably pivoted to third base and threw wildly, giving Brandon Inge no chance at catching the ball and allowing both runners to score. The error was just his second this season.

"Joel threw the ball away," Leyland said, "and he made a fundamental mistake."

A fundamental mistake for a fundamental pitcher? Was someone practicing voodoo on the Voodoo Child in St. Louis Tuesday night?

How else to explain when a pitcher -- who was told, just moments before in a mound visit with Leyland, to make sure he throws to second on a ground ball -- suddenly throws the opposite way? How else to explain when a pitcher chooses third base when, he later said, he'd never before made that choice playing baseball? How else to explain when the pitcher makes the pitch he wants to, in the perfect spot, and induces exactly what he wanted?

"I hope someone wasn't sticking pins in me," Zumaya said with a small smile.

After the game, Zumaya stood up to the reporters, wave after wave. He cursed calmly, stood proudly, and spoke steady. He was still angry and disappointed at the mistake that was unmistakable.

"It's rare for anybody, especially at this level," left-hander and teammate Mike Maroth said. "He made the wrong choice, when it came back to him in that split second he didn't know what to do."

Zumaya, after the game, knew exactly what he needed to do. He showered, dressed and went back to the hotel. And hopefully for his sake, fell asleep. No word on what, if any, music there'd be when he shut his eyes.

Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.