DETROIT — It could end up being a turning point for Tigers reliever Phil Coke.
Although the Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox Sunday night, Coke came into the game in the seventh inning with runners at the corners and David Ortiz at the plate in a 2-2 game.
Coke battled Ortiz for seven pitches, finally getting him to fly out to center field on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball, ending the threat.
"That’s what makes the game fun, having a chance to go against one of the most clutch hitters of all time," Coke said after the game. "Being able to go out there, and go mano a mano, it’s always a fun time for me. I enjoy pitching in what could be really large situations."
Ortiz won the war, hitting the game-winning, three-run home run off Joba Chamberlain in the ninth inning, but Coke won the battle, as he has many times.
The last two years have been really sub-par, especially by my standards.
Ortiz is just 2-for-19 (.105) with one double against Coke in his career.
"I don’t think about what I’ve done against a guy like David, because at any given moment, it could turn on a dime," Coke said. "I’m thankful for what I’ve done, and what I continue to do."
Coke came out again for the eighth, giving up a single and hitting a batter, but he did not allow a run.
"It was a big outing for him, it was a big outing for us," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Got obviously some big outs and really protected us in a number of ways, not only because he pitched well but he protected us in the sense that if we did go extra innings, we didn’t have to burn a guy, Phil Coke for David Ortiz. He was able to go deeper down into the lineup to protect us in case we had to go 10, 11, 12 innings."
Coke, 31, has allowed one run in his last four outings, a home run to Toronto’s Melky Cabrera, lowering his ERA to 6.00.
While that is not an impressive ERA for a reliever, it’s a far cry from the 9.39 ERA he had at the beginning of May.
Coke feels like things are starting to head in the right direction.
"It’s one thing when you’re more known for being a slow starter and you’re going out there and having struggles early and then you look up there and see things like ERAs and stuff like that at this point of the season," Coke said. "People are like, ‘Oh, this guy’s washed up.’ But it’s a matter of three or four different outings right at the beginning of the season when I was pitching once every seven days. It’s kind of hard to get a feel for the game, feel for hitters in the box and situations. You’re able to start to get a little more consistency under your belt and things start to come together for you."
As much as fans have been upset with Coke, he has been even more upset with himself the last couple of seasons.
From 2010 through 2012, Coke had ERAs of 3.76, 4.47 and 4.00.
"The last two years have been really sub-par, especially by my standards," Coke said. "I’ve pitched really bad. From just feeling absolutely terrible and not having a feel for what’s going on as far as physically speaking, the injuries I had last year, things like that, they set you back. It’s really tough to get your feet back under you and really get going again."
Coke spent time on the disabled list last season with a groin injury and then late in the season he experienced elbow trouble, all of which is now behind him.
Coke said he doesn’t focus on his critics or on his struggles, just on trying to help the team.
"I’m just happy to be here," Coke said. "I knew that coming into spring training that I was really going to have to fight my way onto the team because we went out and made a bunch of moves, put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I was able to perform, especially the latter half of spring training. Then it was a matter of those adjustments that I made the different outings that I had in spring training, being able to put them together in situations on the field during the regular season."
Coke was 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 games in spring training.
What Coke needs now is to have the kind of success he’s had against Ortiz against other left-handed hitters.
Currently, Coke has a 6.23 ERA against lefties and a 5.84 against righties.
In 2013, it was 6.10 against lefties and 4.58 against righties.
In 2012, Coke had better results, with a 2.87 ERA against lefties and a 5.56 ERA against righties.
It’s going to take a while but Coke believes he can get back to where he was.
"I’m having a better feel for things that I’m doing with a baseball and placement of the ball on each pitch," Coke said. "I wouldn’t necessarily say, oh, my confidence is rolling, I’m just feeling pretty good about the way the ball’s coming out of my hand. On an individual basis, that’s really the only thing I’m concerned about."