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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.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

WS PREVIEW: Phil Coke is best when his brain doesn't get in the way

DETROIT — Perhaps the last thing you want to have happen with Phil Coke is to let his brain get involved.

That’s not to say the Detroit Tigers’ most loquacious reliever is not intelligent.

He is. Just ask him. Perhaps even artistic, considering he’s right-brained (to go along with being left-handed), he’ll say.

But he does have a tendency to let his brain get in the way, from time to time.

“I have a personal history of overthinking things and getting myself into trouble,” Coke said during last year’s American League Championship Series.

He may have been overthinking things midway through this season, when he struggled so badly he was — in his words — costing the Tigers games. When he couldn’t get a right-handed hitter out to save his life, and lefties — his specialty — were all of a sudden no picnic, either.

His extensive work with pitching coach Jeff Jones was not necessarily to fix egregious mechanical flaws, as it was to work on something a bit more mental — confidence, more or less.

While his manager, Jim Leyland, expressed concern at the time, he never lost faith in Coke, and that loyalty paid off in spades this postseason, when Leyland needed him against the lefty-laden New York Yankees lineup in this year’s ALCS. Coke closed out three games in the four-game sweep.

Confidence restored.

“When the boss gave me the ball. And then didn’t come back to get it. The fact that he stayed in there (the dugout), and didn’t come back out, that’s all the confidence I need,” Coke said.

Look at it this way: In the regular season, he had an ERA as high as 5.93 in mid-May. He allowed right-handed hitters to post a .396 batting average, and a .604 slugging percentage.

How did he change it?

“Sheer will. Will and drive to succeed,” he said.

His teammates were impressed, too.

“Wow. I mean, wow. Unbelievable. I’m not surprised just because what he doing just because of how things go for him. 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,” said fellow reliever Octavio Dotel. “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.”

Teammate Danny Worth agreed.

“You can make an argument for Coke for ALCS MVP,” the reserve infielder said. “That’s a legitimate argument.”

Their manager would probably have no argument with that selection, considering he kept going to the well, using Coke to close out games instead of the struggling Jose Valverde. And it’s worked, for whatever reason.

“I don’t have any idea what’s going on. I just know I’m having a good time,” Coke said. “My job is not to worry about that; it’s to throw strikes and get outs. That’s what my job is, and that’s where my head’s at and that’s all I pay attention to.”

But Leyland just knew not to test that, not to put the pressure on Coke by letting him think too much about what the plan might be.

“No, he wasn’t (forewarned). That is probably the good thing about it, he didn’t expect it. He didn’t have a lot of time to think about things and reacted and pitched,” Leyland said.

“Nobody knew it would play out this way. You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen from this point on. Obviously a lot of people are going to saying save with Coke now, but we will play it by ear.

“You are right, I think probably the fact that it wasn’t — it was a spontaneous thing, that he jumped in there, we put him in there, really didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, and he reacted unbelievably.”

In fact, Coke had to ask if he was still in the game for the ninth inning of the Tigers’ sweep-clinching, 8-1 win over the Yankees in Thursday’s Game 4.

“I wasn’t 100 percent sure what was going on. I looked at Jonesy, and was like ... (points to the mound). He’s like, ‘Yeah!’ I was like, ‘OK,’ ” said Coke, who trotted back out to close out the game.

“I just had to make sure. I didn’t want to look like an idiot.”

Of course, had the Tigers taken Coke out for the ninth inning, we’d have all been robbed of seeing his entirely spontaneous celebration of the final out. Coke pointed out Jayson Nix’s pop up to the infielders and then, as the ball settled into Prince Fielder’s glove, Coke fired his own mitt at the ground, like he was spiking a football.

“Stoked. Stoked, man. Just stoked. No ill towards anybody, just excited, thrilled happy and she took a beating for it,” said a hoarse Coke after the celebration, admitting there was no premeditation in the act, that he hadn’t thought anything through. “My voice kind of came out, and I think it’s laying over there by where my glove fell. That’s fine.”

In part, that faith between Leyland and Coke comes from their mutual understanding. Leyland understands that Coke can be a kook — “He has one oar out of the water, but I love him,” the manager said when talking about having Coke in the dugout during the ill-fated conversion to a starter role last season — and so does Coke.

The two playfully go back and forth.

“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.”

Even when it’s about something serious, like whether or not Coke will be available to pitch. Leyland insisted that Coke would be unavailable for Game 4 when it was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but Coke disagreed.

Not atypical.

Does he ever try to twist his skipper’s arm?

“Always. Always,” Coke said in an MLB Network Radio interview. “Every day he tells me I’m down, tells me not to pick up a ball, I’m like ‘You know I can’t do that. You know I’m going to go out there and prepare myself every day, and be ready, no matter what. And you know where to find me later on in the game, if you change your mind. I’ll be hanging out down there by the phone for ya.’ ”

It wasn’t Leyland’s arm he was twisting in the celebration. He was bonking him on the head.

“That was just Phil Coke pouring champagne. I got real cold. I usually don’t go out in those celebrations. But they got me, and I was freezing, so I jumped up and he was — as Phil Coke will do — he kept dousing the thing. Well, as he poured the bottle down, I jumped up,” Leyland said Saturday. “Well, he hit my bald spot in the back, split my head open, but fortunately it was just a big scab. It didn’t slice it open. I didn’t need stitches or anything. After a couple more vodkas and cranberries, I didn’t feel anything.”

Leyland certainly won’t hold it against Coke.

Especially not if the left-hander can continue his postseason success in the World Series.

Just don’t let him think about it, first.

Email Matthew B. Mowery at and follow him on Twitter @matthewbmowery. Text keyword “Tigers” to 22700 to get updates sent to your phone. Msg & data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.


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