Phil Coke Saves Second Straight as Tigers Push Yankees to the Brink

All the stories you’ll read about the Detroit Tigers’ 2-1 win over the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS on Tuesday night will undoubtedly extol the virtues of Justin Verlander and they should. But the most exciting part of the game came after Verlander departed.

132 pitches was enough for Tigers manager Jim Leyland on Tuesday. When Brett Gardner battled the Tigers’ ace for eight pitches before making the first out of the ninth, Verlander’s day was done. With the heart of the Yankee order due up and a one-run lead to protect, enter left hander Phil Coke to try to seal the deal.

Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Phil Coke throws a pitch in the 9th inning against the New York Yankees during game three of the 2012 ALCS at Comerica Park. The Tigers won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Coke, who had recorded a two-inning save in Game Two, has had a terrible season by almost any measure. Right handed hitters have hit damn near .400 against him in 2012 and posted an OPS of 1.050. In other words, if a single right handed batter got to face Coke for his entire career, he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But Coke’s real job is to get lefties out, right? Actually, no. Coke faced 115 right handed batters, just 15 fewer than the number of left handed hitters that Coke matched up with in 2012. Oh, and it’s not as if Coke dominated those lefties, either. Left handed batters posted a respectable .263 average versus Coke, but were held to a .685 OPS. Not dominant by any means, but a passable effort for a middle reliever.

Phil Coke is suddenly not a  middle reliever anymore. After Jose Valverde imploded in consecutive outings, Leyland opted to use Coke in Game Two. Despite a season where he allowed nearly 12 hits per nine innings and posted an abysmal WHIP of 1.648, suddenly Coke was thrust into the spotlight once again, but this time protecting just a one-run edge.

He got Ichiro Suzuki to roll over on a ground ball to second for the inning’s second out and was left out there to face the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira. Given Coke’s struggles versus right handed hitters, it seemed like the move would have been to go get Joaquin Benoit and keep Teixeira hitting left handed. Benoit is effective versus lefties and Teixeira is a significantly better hitter versus southpaws this season. Eventually, Teixeira grounded a seeing-eye single up the middle to keep the Yankee hopes alive.

Robinson Cano is the next hitter, riding an oh-for-29 streak coming into that at bat. Sooner or later, a guy like Cano is going to break out of it at some point. He lined a single the other way. Coke had faced three hitters and allowed two hits. Not exactly uncommon ground here for the Tiger lefty.

So of course, Raul Ibanez strides to the plate. It had to come down to him again, didn’t it? Ibanez has not only clubbed three homers already this post season, but all three have come in the ninth inning or later and all three have either tied the game or put the Yankees ahead. Ibanez entered with one career hit against Coke in four at bats. It was a home run.

Coke falls behind, missing with a pair of fastballs away. He gets a foul ball, then misses again. At 3-1 on the hitter, Coke came over the heart of the plate and down with a fastball that Ibanez fouled away. Again, Coke came in with a heater and again Ibanez fouled it off. Nick Swisher was standing in the on-deck circle and the idea of walking Ibanez here wasn’t all that ball given everything that seemed to be working against Coke and the Tigers right then.

So with the game on the line in the ALCS, a middle reliever who has had the worst season of his career took the sign, shrugged his shoulders (as he does before every pitch) almost as if to say “well, I hope this works” and delivered the sharpest, most well-located slider of his career. Ibanez was out in front and never had a chance.

The Tigers are holding a three game edge in the ALCS and now need just one more win to eliminate New York and advance to the World Series. Leyland is a guy who manages by gut as much as anyone in the league and he’s terribly loyal to his veteran players. Coke has gotten plenty of big outs in his career with the Tigers, even if has struggled so mightily this season. Given the match-ups that faced the Tigers in the ninth, there were opportunities to use Benoit instead of Coke. Suzuki came in hitting .385 in his career versus Coke, so the lefty-lefty match-up goes out the window there, or it should anyway. Teixeira is an elite hitter against lefties while merely very good against right handed pitchers. Again, Benoit would have been the better match-up.

Leyland has said that in Valverde’s absence, he would finish games based on match-ups, but when the opportunity to mix and match came with the game on the line, he stuck with a guy he rightly should have had no faith in whatsoever. Just like any random Valverde save opportunity, this one wasn’t pretty, but the Tigers wrapped up the win.

Leyland said that Valverde remains his closer, but it looks like Coke might be the designated saver of games until the Big Potato can right the ship.

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