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Healthy at last, Zeid looks to make impact with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Imagine pitching in the major leagues with a broken bone, the same broken bone, in both feet.

That's what Tigers' right-hander Josh Zeid tried to do in Houston last season.

"You just can't do certain things very well," said Zeid, whom the Tigers signed off waivers from the Astros last November. "Every time you land you are landing on a broken foot and every time you push off, you are pushing off on a broken foot."

After a promising debut in 2013 (3.90 ERA, 1.373 WHIP in 25 appearances), Zeid struggled and ultimately had to face surgery after 23 games last season. X-rays showed that he had fractured the sesamoid bone in each foot.

"There is no medical explanation why I would break the exact same bone in each foot," he said. "Just wear and tear, I guess. It's the bone in the ball of the foot under the big toe."

He had one operated on in August and the other in October.

"This is the first time I've technically been on two good feet in two and a half years," he said. "I feel like I am a completely new pitcher."

The Tigers liked the old one, too. They have had their eyes on Zeid, now 27, since his college days at both Tulane and Vanderbilt. They were intrigued, too, when he was striking out 190 in 179.2 inning through Double A and Triple A from 2011 to 2013.

They saw him up close and personal in two games last season when he retired three of the four Tigers batters he faced.

"He's a guy we've had good reports on," president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said in December. "We think he's healthy now, so we're looking forward to seeing what he can do."

The Tigers also have some recent success rehabilitating Astros' castoffs — J.D. Martinez last season. Zeid, like Martinez was, seems determined to prove they were hasty in discarding him.

"They tried to make it painless, but you do take a bit of offense to it," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with the organization really, but as a person, it's like getting fired. Nobody likes getting fired, so your goal is to perform better, to play better, to get stronger — to get back at them somehow.

"That's what I spent the whole offseason trying to do."

Each foot was immobilized for six weeks after surgery. But he made good use of that time. He spent every day strengthening his shoulders and his core muscles. And when he was finally able to be on both feet, he's been putting in four to five hours a day at the gym conditioning and rehabbing.

"I am making sure I have absolutely no excuses this year," he said. "I have never been more confident coming into spring training."

At his best, Zeid featured a lively four-seam fastball (95 mph) and a swing-and-miss slider. He also mixed in a split-fingered fastball and sinker. He said he hasn't been on the radar gun yet this spring, but he said he's never felt stronger.

"You can tell from just the way the catchers are reacting and just my own feel," he said. "You know the ball is coming out good. Whether that translates to the games, I don't know. But right now I feel great."

Zeid is among a large group of right-handers vying for a bullpen job. Assuming Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque, plus two left-handers, will be on the 25-man roster, Zeid is battling with Alex Wilson, Chad Smith, Jose Valdez, Angel Nesbitt and possibly Buck Farmer for one spot.

"Any time a team designates you (for assignment), you know you are not in their plans anymore," Zeid said. "But then a team with this rich history comes and picks you up because they have needs. Whether or not I'm the specific answer, I plan to be. I plan to be of importance and have an impact, whether it's today or in September.

"I feel like I still have a lot of baseball left."