Fiery Coke gives Tigers finishing pop they need
In wake of Valverde's struggles, lefty locks down Yanks for two-inning save
NEW YORK -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland needed to look Phil Coke in the eyes, read his body language, gauge his response. The question consisted of only four words, but they were of great magnitude under the circumstances.
Hours before Detroit's 3-0 victory over the Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Leyland called Coke into his office. One day after another meltdown by Jose Valverde, the Tigers needed to have someone ready to handle the closing duties if the score was tight.
Leyland needed to know if Coke was up to the task.
"Can you do this?" asked the manager.
The left-handed reliever answered in a big way.
Following a strong seven-inning performance from starter Anibal Sanchez, Leyland handed the ball to Coke, who finished the game with a two-inning assault on the strike zone. This was the first installment within Leyland's closer-by-committee plan, which went into effect Sunday and will last until the club feels Valverde has regained his mechanics and confidence.
Coke cruised through the eighth and was told he would handle at least one batter -- postseason hero Raul Ibanez -- to open the ninth.
Coke reeled off 28 pitches, including 23 for strikes, collecting a save and sending Detroit back home with a 2-0 edge in the ALCS. Valverde has claimed the ninth inning as his territory to the point that Coke did not even realize he earned a save with his outing in the Bronx. The lefty knew he was credited with a game finished and assumed he earned a hold.
Reporters insisted that he picked up the save.
"Ok, cool," said Coke, shrugging off the bit of statistical confusion. "Good times. I'm not thinking about it that way."
That is the easygoing Coke found inside Detroit's clubhouse.
On the mound, it is a different story.
"He's a very intense kind of guy when he's out there," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said.
Through the first two games of this series, Coke has logged 38 strikes among his 44 pitches in three innings. That is a snapshot of Coke's mentality when coming out of Detroit's bullpen.
"Don't let down. Don't back off," Coke said. "Go out there and continue pounding the zone and make them swing at pitches I want them to swing at."
Leyland turned to Coke with Detroit clinging to a three-run lead in the eighth inning, when the Yankees had two left-handed hitters (Ichiro Suzuki and Robinson Cano) and a switch-hitter (Mark Teixeira) due up. Coke held lefties to a .685 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the regular season, and he breezed through the eighth accordingly.
In the ninth inning, Leyland could have gone in a couple different directions.
Ibanez was set to lead off, followed by right-handed hitters Russell Martin and Alex Rodriguez. Serving as the ninth-inning cleanup man was lefty-hitting Curtis Granderson. Leyland had right-handed setup man Joaquin Benoit warming up in the bullpen, but he stuck with Coke.
Coke was not surprised to still be out there for the ninth.
"He told me that I was going to face one, maybe more," Coke said. "I was stating my case for more."
After Coke struck out Ibanez, Leyland did not flinch in the dugout.
Benoit was ready, and Yankee Stadium was buzzing. Less than 24 hours earlier, New York's fans watched the local nine produce four runs -- via a pair of two-run home runs, including one from Ibanez -- in a stirring ninth-inning rally against Valverde.
"I was, personally, surprised that [Coke] went out for that second inning," Tigers reliever Octovio Dotel said. "Righties came up and Benoit was ready."
During the regular season, right-handed hitters posted a .396 average and a 1.050 OPS against Coke. Leyland was more focused on the fact that Martin had a .226 average off lefties this season, and Granderson -- a favorable matchup, especially during his ongoing postseason slump -- loomed after Rodriguez.
"Sometimes the game falls in place for a manager," Leyland said. "It fell in place with Raul -- as hot as he has been -- with Raul leading off in the ninth inning. It kind of fell into place. Then we know how dangerous Russell Martin can be, but the numbers said he has not hit lefties that great."
Martin struck out swinging and Rodriguez followed with a base hit up the middle.
Coke moved forward unfazed, striking out Granderson to end the game.
It was precisely what Detroit needed.
"Guys have to step up throughout the playoffs," Avila said. "When guys are struggling, other guys have got to step up. He did a good job today."
Asked if he enjoyed being trusted with that situation, Coke cracked a grin.
"Do you want me to say no?" he said to an eruption of laughter.
"I was really cool," he then added. "It's nice to have the skipper's confidence in you. ... It was really cool for him to leave me out there. I was prepared for whatever he was going to do."
That is the answer Leyland hoped to hear.