By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Phil Coke is a lefty, and so is David Ortiz. Against the Detroit Tigers reliever, the Boston Red Sox slugger has just two hits and a walk in 19 appearances. When Ortiz came up with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the ALCS, though, Detroit manager Jim Leyland went with setup-man-turned-closer Joaquin Benoit instead.
Left off the ALDS roster because of elbow inflammation, Coke is on the ALCS roster but has yet to record a postseason outing.
“I want to just get [Coke] out there in not such a huge pressure situation after being away from it so long,” Leyland said. “I’d like it to be another scenario, maybe in the sixth inning or something with a lead or if you’re behind a couple runs, get his feet wet again. He’s pitched one inning in instructional league since I don’t know how long. I’d like to get him in a game where it’s not quite as significant or a pressure situation so much.”
Detroit won its first game in Boston 1-0, so little in that game would not qualify as a pressure situation, and matching up against Ortiz and three men on base might be the dictionary definition of the phrase.
Coke, who said he has been hitting his spots in his rehabilitation work, said he did not have a problem with Leyland’s choice to go with Benoit, who finished the season with a 2.01 ERA.
“He’s been really, really good, and I’m pretty sure nobody can really argue that,” Coke said. “The fact that he’s been as dominant as he has been this far in the postseason, there’s hiccups here and there, but he’s been the most consistent guy in the pen. I don’t have any issues or questions for Skipper on why he went with Benoit because he’s proven himself to be able to handle it.”
“I understand as a ball player, as a spectator of the game and somebody that loves the game, I understand why he was in the game at that moment,” Coke added.
Coke’s last start came on Sept. 18, when he allowed three hits and three runs in two-thirds of an inning. Not long after, the team did an MRI, and it was announced that Coke would be unavailable because of inflammation in his elbow. Swelling alone did not bother him, but when he extended his arm, there was tightness, and he called Tigers trainer Kevin Rand.
“It was the flexor mass that connects into the point of the elbow,” Coke said. “It wasn’t ulnar or nerve issues, it was more anything that requires you to grip and pull your hand closed is what I was dealing with.”
Coke said the big change since then has been a renewed ability to locate his pitches.
“My velocity was fine,” Coke said. “It was being able to locate the ball because of lack of ability to finish. If you can throw the crap out of the ball but not know where it’s going, what good is that, you know what I mean?”
“[The injury] was enough to create a lack of willingness to finish, being really tentative,” Coke said.
Getting back to form has been quite the process, and evaluating the elbow is a day-at-a-time proposition.
“It felt like an eternity,” Coke said. “It was more of a wait-and-see kind of situation as far as how my arm was going to respond each day that I threw the ball, whether it was playing catch or getting a light side session in, and then get another more active version of a side in, as game-like as possible and actual face hitters that are trying to hit the ball.”
Now, though, Coke seems ready to go. He made 10 postseason appearances for the Tigers in 2012 and recorded an ERA of 0.84. In those outings, he allowed a combined six hits and one run while walking two and striking out 13. He wants people to know that he is still that pitcher, not the one that struggled often and ended the 2013 regular season with a 5.40 ERA.
“I want to be in the game, and I want to do everything I can to get the job done,” Coke said. “I didn’t really have a phenomenal season this year, and that’s all the more reason for me to want to get in these games and show that I’m not really just a one-hit wonder or anything like that. I really know what I’m doing, and I have something to prove.”