DETROIT — David Ortiz faced both Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain with two runners on in the late innings of Sunday night’s thriller between the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox.
"Big Papi" beat one of them with a three-run homer for a 5-3 Boston win to keep Detroit from sweeping the six-game season series.
And while Coke was the more likely victim, based on recent outings, he also had an outstanding history of success going against Ortiz.
Chamberlain had blanked opponents in 18 of his last 19 appearances and some were saying that he could replace Joe Nathan as the closer. But it was Chamberlain who watched the ninth-inning moon shot sail off the bat of Ortiz.
"David knows me and I know him," said Chamberlain. "He will go down as probably the greatest DH of all-time…He can end the game with one swing.
"My pitch stayed up. If I execute a slider there, it’s a different story."
Instead, it added to the sad story that the ninth inning has become for these Tigers, who are still in first place despite allowing 46 runs in ninth innings. That is 11 more than they’ve allowed in any other inning. Some of those are tack-on runs, but much of that scoring has broken the hearts of Detroit fans.
Nathan, who had the game off after throwing 44 pitches the previous two nights, has four blown saves while completing 13 saves to account for most of that carnage.
"You certainly don’t want to be giving up runs like that in the ninth inning," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. "I’m not overly concerned about it, but it’s got to stop at some point. I do think Joe’s going to get his groove back, so to speak, and be fine. Once Joe returns to form, then I think those numbers will come back to earth."
Nathan has allowed all 18 of his runs in ninth innings for a 7.04 ERA, and Coke has allowed eight runs in ninth innings.
Coke entered in the seventh inning in this game with a 6.41 ERA and a .321 opponent batting average. And so when he sprinted in from the bullpen like a man with his hair on fire, many of the fans at Comerica Park booed.
The only debate about Coke has been about when it’s safe enough to use him. Is it with a lead or deficit of six, five or four runs?
But now he was coming into a 2-2 game in the seventh inning with runners on the corners and two outs. Waiting in the on-deck circle was Ortiz, who becomes quite human when Coke faces him. In fact, Ortiz would be in the minors if he hit everybody like he does Coke. His batting average against him after flying out to end the seventh is .095.
Coke has faced Ortiz more than any other batter during his career. Ortiz is 2-for-21 with one double, five RBIs, one walk and four strikeouts in their encounters.
"I don’t think about that," Coke said of his success in the matchup. "At any moment, it can turn on a dime. But I’m thankful for what I’ve done and continue to do."
Coke nearly had that "turn on a dime" moment, missing the strike zone with his first three pitches. But then he got Ortiz to foul one back before getting him to swing and miss. The fans stood, cheering wildly. Papi slapped his hands like he does, awaiting the full-count pitch.
He drove the pitch 390 feet, but that’s 30 feet from the wall in center field. Austin Jackson caught it with ease.
"It’s what makes the game fun — going against the greatest clutch hitter of all time, mano a mano," Coke said.
Coke would live dangerously in the eighth inning, giving up a rocket single to Mike Napoli that third baseman Nick Castellanos blocked in self-defense. Coke got a couple ground-outs after Napoli surprisingly stole second, but hit pinch-hitter Jonathan Herrera after nearly missing him entirely from behind for what could’ve been a run-scoring wild pitch.
But Coke struck out Jackie Bradley Jr., exiting the mound in triumph.
"It felt really good," said Coke. "It was a long time coming."
Chamberlain, a real pro, was happy for Coke.
"We’re going to need him," said Chamberlain. "He’s going to get on a roll."
Any optimism that can be gained after a disappointing loss is something, right?