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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coke assumes Valverde's role for time being

DETROIT — One voice bellowed out commentary over the buzz of the questions being lobbed at the Tigers in the postgame locker room at Comerica Park Tuesday night.

It cut through the mob of reporters thronging around the stall of one of the Tigers’ unexpected postseason heroes, Phil Coke, making him stop and grin for a second, before smoothly picking up his answer.

“Cokie, you the man. You the (bleeping) man!” deposed Tigers closer Jose Valverde good-naturedly yelled out as he wandered past the locker of the man who, for all intents and purposes, at least for the last two games, inherited his role.

He finished off the Tigers’ 2-1 win in Tuesday’s Game 3 of the American League Championship Series

Coke’s stall is not necessarily a must-visit destination for the run-of-the-mill member of the media hordes which regularly invade the Detroit Tigers locker room.

For sure, a stop there will net a recorder full of pithy quotes, funny sayings and downright goofy remarks, something the regular visitors know, but given his role in the last year and a half — as a lefty specialist and middle reliever — he isn’t often thrust into the spotlight.

That, however, was where he found himself Tuesday, after he’d closed out his second straight playoff save, striking out one of this postseason’s most dangerous bats, Raul Ibanez, with the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base.

Despite the gravity of the situation, it was the same old Phil who welcomed the massive swarm of media members, the same guy who joked that reporters wouldn’t want to talk to visit him anymore when he transitioned back to the bullpen from a starter’s role at midseason last year.

How could you miss it, though?

What’s changed from Coke’s midseason struggles, he’s asked.

“I seem to be sweating more,” he deadpanned.

Do you remember your theory from a few weeks ago?

“No. I forgot it. Yes, I remember it, but I’m still not telling YOU,” he teased one reporter.

You’re one win a way from the World Series. What does that feel like?

“Exactly what you said. That we’re one win away.”

What happened on the last pitch to Raul Ibanez, to get the game-clinching strikeout?

“I threw it as hard as he could, and luckily he swung as hard as he could ... and didn’t hit it,” Coke said.

Both Alex Avila and Jim Leyland called the slider he struck Ibanez out with, one of the best Coke’s ever thrown. Did he agree?

“Pretty good!” the reliever said in a sing-song voice, drawing out each vowel.

Phil Coke in a nutshell.

Not-so-serious one minute, and less serious the next.

For all that, he’s been thrust into the most deadly serious roles on the team, all of a sudden.

With Justin Verlander cruising along through eight shutout innings, looking for all the world like he would become the ninth pitcher in MLB history to post two shutouts in one postseason, it all changed in a hurry.

Eduardo Nunez’s solo home run to lead off the ninth snapped Verlander’s streak of scoreless innings at 23, and cut the lead to just one run.

And it landed right next to Coke, who was warming up in the bullpen.

“I thought Dirks was going to catch it. He was so close to catching it. I stopped to watch it,” the lefty said.

He didn’t.

That sent manager Jim Leyland marching out to the mound for a terse conversation with his ace.

“Basically I asked him, I said, ‘You have one more hitter?’ And he said yes. So I gave him (Brett) Gardner. ... Normally I guess you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him,” Leyland said. “I was not going to let him face Ichiro.”

With a slew of lefties due up, Leyland turned to the left-handed Coke to take it the rest of the way.

“It was awesome to have Skipper have the confidence in me to give me the ball again, especially in the meat of their order where they’re stacked with lefties, one switch hitter. It was really cool to have Skipper hand me the ball, and say ‘Go get ‘em,’ ” Coke admitted. “I didn’t know that I was going to finish it. I thought I might have a couple lefties and maybe (Joaquin) Benoit was coming in for (Mark) Teixeira, but as soon as I saw that there wasn’t anybody coming out to talk to me, I was like ‘All right, cool. Let’s roll.’ ”

He’d get Suzuki, but give up back-to-back two-out hits to Teixeira and Robinson Cano before striking out Ibanez, who’d been the villain in Valverde’s meltdown in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the series.

“He’s killing everybody. He’s doing things that nobody’s ever done in the game of baseball,” Coke said.

Despite two straight saves, Coke’s unlikely to get a third in Wednesday’s Game 4. Leyland said after the game that they left-hander would not be available, leaving him to rely on other options.

“I will play it by ear. We have a bunch of guys down there. And, you know, I have so much respect for him (Valverde), because one of the happiest faces in the clubhouse after the game and pumping the guys up was Valverde. And that’s what team is all about,” Leyland said. “Will I use him tomorrow? Yes. Will I use him for sure. I can’t answer that right now. We’ll see how it plays out.” 

Whether or not he does, Coke will probably be the first guy to support Valverde, too.


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