Late Saturday night, the question became, why didn't Phil Coke get utilized sooner? In the middle of a down year for Coke, that was a major departure from the norm, as many have come to literally curse his arrival.
But not Saturday.
With the game on the line in extra innings in a place the Detroit Tigers are prone to collapses, Coke powerfully slammed the door on the Cleveland Indians, carving up three solid hitters in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall around a single en-route to picking up his first save of the year, an important 5-4 Detroit victory.
Considering where he's been lately, Coke's performance in this spot was quite shocking. This was the man who couldn't locate home plate with a compass for the better part of April and May, leading to the correct notion he could have been on the roster bubble. This was also the man who seemed to give up runs in bunches, whether the moment was big or cleanup duty.
What's the explanation for Coke's rejuvenation? Simple. The ball is "coming out of my hand better," he told Lynn Henning of the Detroit News after the game while adding, "it just seems to be there." What was completely gone for the better part of a year has apparently now returned in a flash without much fanfare. Sometimes, baseball can be the best worst game ever.
Coke's real signs of life began when the Boston Red Sox were in town in early June. In a big Sunday night affair, Coke came out of the bullpen and pitched around some lighter contact, getting a clutch strikeout and several big outs in a close game during over an inning pitched. The fact that he was able to face down the Red Sox' mighty lineup, prone to work and burn even the best pitchers, may have been the moment the turnaround officially began.
With Saturday's performance, Coke hasn't given up an earned run in his last three appearances while striking out four, walking one and allowing three hits. Coke's ERA, which was once north of 9.00 at one point in early May, is coming back down, now at 5.81. He's earning back confidence one solid performance at a time, and proving that he can be trusted to take the ball again in whatever spot he's asked with savvy pitching.
Proof positive Coke is making it back to where he once was? Most were craving for him in the bottom of the ninth, with Joe Nathan running on fumes in his third straight appearance and left handed Michael Bourn hitting with two men on and two out. Bourn, of course, singled home David Murphy and tied the game. Many felt Coke could have produced no worse of a result had he appeared.
The fact that this notion has returned, perhaps for the first time since the 2012 playoffs, is big for Coke's confidence, which is growing by the day. If that confidence swells to two year ago highs, Coke could once again be counted on to become the powerful x-factor he once was for a very needy Tigers' bullpen.
Until then, if the usually loquacious Coke continually fails to speak at length about what he's done to ensure better pitching, it will be a telltale sign he remains on the move mentally and physically.
Max DeMara is the editor of @tigers_101. Follow the site there on Twitter, or like it on Facebook to connect with him.
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