Tigers' Coke clutch after tough season
DETROIT -- When Prince Fielder caught Jayson Nix's pop-up for the final out of the ALCS, reliever Phil Coke took off his glove, slammed it down on the mound and let out a few primal screams before his teammates mobbed him.
The Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees and are headed to the World Series, due in no small part to the way Coke performed. He pitched in all four games against the Yankees, the team that originally drafted him in the 26th round in 2002, and earned two saves and a hold.
The two postseason saves were one more than Coke had during the entire regular season. Before Coke, no reliever who had fewer than two saves during the regular season had at least two saves in an LCS.
"It’s been a blast," Coke said. "I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than for us to get to the World Series, have a chance to participate and do the best job I could for my team and get this dude (Max Scherzer) a win."
Considering the final score was 8-1, the stress level was a lot lower than it had been in Game 3, when Coke came on to relieve Justin Verlander with the Tigers clinging to 2-1 lead and one out in the ninth.
After Coke recorded the second out, he ran into a little trouble, giving up back-to-back singles to Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, with Raul Ibanez up next.
Coke's teammates say the pitch he induced Ibanez to strike out on might have been the left-hander's best of the season.
"I can tell you this, that was the nastiest pitch I've ever seen him throw," Scherzer said. "Unreal slider that he threw. No one's gonna hit that. There's no one in the game that can hit that pitch.
"For him to be able to throw it like that was unbelievable."
Catcher Gerald Laird said you cannot underestimate how important that pitch was in the series.
"Ibanez is their hottest hitter, and you could tell he was because they left him to face the lefty, a tough lefty in Coke," Laird said. "Coke went after him with the fastballs, 3-2, and then threw probably the best breaking ball he's thrown all year.
"If they get a base hit right there, they could tie the game. And next thing you know, if they win the game, it's not a 3-0 lead, it's a 2-1 lead and they've got CC (Sabathia in Game 4)."
In the 2012 postseason, Coke has thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings, and opponents are batting just .154 against him. It's an amazing turnaround from what Coke did in the regular season. In 66 games, he had an ERA of 4.00, and opponents hit .324 against him.
What's most shocking is what right-handed hitters did against Coke, batting .396. Contrast that with Coke's first year with the Tigers, in 2010, when right-handers hit .276 and lefties .273.
Coke doesn't have an explanation for his postseason awakening.
"I don't have any idea what's going on," Coke said before Game 4. "I just know I'm having a good time.
"We have a common goal that we're trying to achieve, and the last thing I want to be known for is the one that didn't do his job."
Coke isn't the Tigers' regular closer, but manager Jim Leyland had to do something when Jose Valverde faltered in Game 4 of the ALDS against Oakland and again in Game 1 of the ALCS in New York.
With the left-handers and switch-hitters the Yankees had, the matchup seemed to work in Coke's favor.
"That is probably the good thing about it: He didn't expect (to close)," Leyland said. "He didn't have a lot of time to think about things and reacted and pitched.
"Nobody knew it would play out this way."
Leyland emphasized that even though Coke responded to the challenge, that doesn't mean he's completely supplanted Valverde as the closer. It will likely depend on which team the Tigers face in the World Series. Leyland said they would "play it by ear."
It takes a special mentality to be able to close out games in pressure situations. Not everyone can handle that job. Coke said that Leyland's faith in him helped him take on the role.
"When the boss gave me the ball and then didn’t come back to get it," Coke said. "The fact that he stayed in there and didn’t come back out, that’s all the confidence I need."
Fellow reliever Octavio Dotel was nearly at a loss for words when describing what Coke did to the Yankees.
"Wow. Unbelievable," Dotel said. "I know he's the type of guy that can do that kind of stuff, what he's doing right now. It's not a surprise. He's doing it, everything. There's nobody else in the bullpen, just Phil Coke.
"I'm being honest, it feels like that way. It's only Phil Coke and the starting pitchers. I appreciate that, that he's stepping up for all the bullpen. It's great. This is unbelievable."
The way Coke capped off the celebration in the clubhouse is unbelievable, too. He chased Leyland into his office and made sure his manager got doused with as much champagne as the rest of the team.
"He’s awesome," Coke said of his manager. "I love the guy. I banter with him all the time. We go back and forth.
"We have a lot of fun with each other ... well, I have a lot of fun with him; maybe he doesn’t have that much fun with me. I don’t know."