MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Zumaya let another one of his famously blazing fastballs fly and immediately felt "a loud and disgusting pop" as he collapsed to the mound in pain, fearful that his career was over.
"It felt like my elbow exploded," the Detroit Tigers reliever said on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the frightening scene in the eighth inning of a 7-5 win over the Minnesota Twins. "It was like someone took a hammer and shattered my elbow."
An MRI exam on Tuesday revealed a fractured right elbow, a diagnosis the team called "the best bad news you can get." The hard thrower will miss the rest of this season, but there was no ligament damage to his elbow so they are optimistic he could return to the mound next season.
Zumaya will have a CT scan when the Tigers return to Detroit to further evaluate the injury, which will take about four months to heal. Doctors have not yet decided if he will need surgery.
"When I felt my elbow go, I instantly thought my career was ending," he said.
The official diagnosis is a fractured right olecranon, which is the bony tip of the elbow right under the skin.
"I have never seen it on a one-pitch episode like that," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said.
A hush fell over Target Field as Zumaya crumbled to his knees. His right thumb quivered from the remarkable pain in a scene that drew comparisons to when San Francisco's Dave Dravecky broke his arm while throwing a pitch against Montreal in 1989.
"It's a nightmare," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You see something like that happen and it's like your kid getting hurt. It's a nightmare. It puts a sick feeling in everybody's stomach."
Zumaya missed large chunks of the last three seasons because of an injury to his shoulder and a ruptured tendon in his middle finger.
"He's worked his fanny off to get back. It's just a crying shame," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's everybody's nightmare, manager, anybody else, to see someone go down like that. But he'll do it again."
Zumaya finally seemed to be back healthy this season, already having pitched more innings in 2010 than he had in any of the previous three seasons. He was 2-1 with 11 holds in 31 appearances this year, and that fastball was hitting 100 mph again.
"Joel Zumaya has been through probably three of the most unique injuries a pitcher can go through," Rand said. "He's almost a medical marvel on the mound, with what happened to his shoulder and what happened to his finger. So I don't put anything past him. He's gotten through those."
Now he has another long and arduous rehab ahead of him. But considering the alternative, Zumaya was breathing a big sigh of relief on Tuesday.
"For a minute, I thought that was the last bullet my arm had," Zumaya said.
But it was the last one he had for this season. Now the Tigers will have to play the remaining three months of the regular season in what is shaping up as another airtight race in the AL Central without their primary setup man to closer Jose Valverde.
Leyland said he did not have an immediate plan for a new late-inning rotation. He hopes to get right-hander Ryan Perry off the disabled list soon, but "will have to mix and match a little more than I've had to."
The Tigers bought the contract of right-handed pitcher Casey Fien from Triple-A Toledo to take Zumaya's place on the roster.
"This is a blow because we thought we had it set up pretty good with Perry in the seventh, Zumaya in the eighth and Valverde closing," Leyland said. "Obviously Zumaya is a big void, but we'll go on. Somebody needs to step up and we'll go on."
Zumaya will, too. Less than 24 hours after he walked off the field with tears in his eyes and his elbow cradled in his left hand, he was already able to crack a joke or two.
"This is another injury, and it's a freak one again," Zumaya said. "I guess I'm just a freak."