- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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DETROIT -- The Detroit Tigers' bullpen caught a break when Game 4 of the American League Championship Series was called because of rain. Phil Coke, the Tigers' temporary closer and resident late-inning savior while Jose Valverde tries to regain his mojo, wasn't going to be in the mix Wednesday because he was coming off three outings in four days and needed a breather.
At least, that's what manager Jim Leyland told everyone. Coke begged to differ.
"I was available in my own mind, anyway,'' Coke said. "The skipper says no and I'm thinking, 'Uhh-huh. Yes I am.'''
Coke's mind is always an interesting place to visit. At this, a critical juncture in the Tigers' season, his left arm and indomitable spirit are coming along for the ride.
The Tigers' starting pitching is the talk of the American League postseason, with good reason. Justin Verlander and friends have compiled a 0.96 ERA and limited the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees to a .168 batting average while recording seven quality starts in eight outings.
But someone has to seal the deal, and with Valverde too mechanically unhinged and emotionally fragile to carry the mantle of closer at the moment, Leyland has found salvation in a certain lefty with a power fastball and a soft drink for a last name.
Coke threw two innings of shutout ball Sunday in the Bronx to record his first career postseason save in a 3-0 victory over the Yankees. Things were a little dicey in Game 3, but Coke struck out Raul Ibanez with a hellacious slider to nail down a 2-1 victory and put the Tigers on the verge of their first World Series appearance since 2006.
This is heady stuff for a guy who was supposed to fill the role of left-handed specialist against Curtis Granderson, Ichiro Suzuki and New York's other lefty hitters in this series. All of a sudden, Coke finds himself shaking hands with the catcher in the ninth inning and receiving more attention and acclaim than he's gotten at any point in five previous big league seasons.
After Game 3, Coke received a particularly entertaining phone message from his wife's sister, who lives in California and was injured while serving in the military in Iraq.
"She left me a really goofy message,'' Coke said. "I can't repeat it because it was rather colorful. It was pretty cool. I can see her jumping up and down all crazy-like in her house with the way the series has gone.''
Coke, 30, broke into pro ball with the Yankees as the 786th overall pick in the 2002 draft out of San Joaquin Delta College. In December 2009, the Tigers acquired him from New York along with center fielder Austin Jackson as part of a three-team, seven-player trade that sent Granderson to the Yankees and Ian Kennedy to Arizona.
Coke's mid-90s fastball has never been much fun for lefty hitters, and he's a durable pitcher who invariably says yes when Leyland asks if he's ready to go. But right-handers have hit .299 with an .802 OPS against Coke in 618 at-bats, and his lopsided splits didn't help his cause when the Tigers tried to use him as a starter early in the 2011 season. Coke also takes an aggressive mindset to the mound and pitches with a lot of emotion, and sometimes his catchers are challenged to keep him on an even keel.
"He kind of feeds off the energy of the crowd,'' said catcher Alex Avila. "He's the type of pitcher who needs that adrenaline, like a lot of guys do coming out of the bullpen. But you have to be able to control it, too.''
Coke also embodies a timeworn baseball stereotype. In the clubhouse and the bullpen, he is prone to making observations that prompt his teammates to look at each other and think, "What did he just say?"
"All lefties are different, and he definitely fits the mold,'' said Gerald Laird, Detroit's other catcher. "Sometimes they don't have a filter, or whatever you want to call it. But he's a bright guy and he's one of those guys who'll do anything for you. He's a good teammate, too. We enjoy having him.''
Coke entered the Comerica Park press room Wednesday afternoon and engaged in a stream-of-unconsciousness monologue that had media members scrambling to hit their retweet buttons. At one point a reporter prefaced a question by acknowledging that Coke was a professional athlete.
"Thank you, man!'' Coke responded, before the question was even complete.
When asked what thoughts flashed through his mind as he threw the climactic 3-2 breaking pitch to Ibanez in Game 4, Coke replied, "Don't hit it, don't hit it, don't hit it, don't hit it.''
Coke's entertaining ramblings have been parodied in an entertaining Twitter site called @PhilCokesBrain. But he's social media-impaired, doesn't follow the account and has no feelings about it one way or the other. Besides, it would be difficult for anyone to top the left-of-center observations he shares on a daily basis directly from his own brain.
How does a guy who has grown accustomed to pitching in relative anonymity feel about his sudden encounter with fame on baseball's biggest stage? Coke hasn't had a chance to wrap his mind around that question yet.
"I don't have any idea what's going on,'' he said. "I just know I'm having a good time.''
Phil Coke is enjoying every minute of his newly found fame in his role as the Tigers' closer.