April 8, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers' Phil Coke can't find right stuff to solve right-handed hitters

Detroit -- Sunday's baseball game at Comerica Park had its mysteries.

Begin by asking how nine innings between the Tigers and Yankees could turn into the most boring 3 hours and 21 minutes of big league baseball in history. At least that was a personal and, probably, understated view of a game the Yankees won, 7-0, and which somehow featured the worst pace and fewest intricacies of any major league contest I've ever attended or covered.

A separate riddle Sunday had to do with Tigers reliever Phil Coke. He had a bad day. His earned-run average after three 2013 games is 16.20, which includes a brilliant outing in last week's opener against the Twins. He faced five batters Sunday, allowing three hits, a long sacrifice fly, and two runs.

Struggling against righties

Coke is at the heart of the Tigers' never-ending bullpen issues. He was considered for a while a potential closer after he pitched gallantly during last autumn's playoffs. And when he got the save on Opening Day at Minnesota, it looked as if Coke might be an answer to manager Jim Leyland's ninth-inning vacancy.

Relief pitchers have ups. They have downs. And so, two clunkers within three games is nothing by which to measure Coke. But what doesn't add up is why Coke, who throws left-handed, has such acute problems against right-handed batters.

The numbers are stark.

Coke entered Sunday's game with right-handers hitting .301 against him during his seven seasons in the majors. Last year was particularly ugly. In 52 games during the regular season, right-handed batters rolled up a .396 average and a 1.050 OPS (.446 on-base percentage plus .604 slugging percentage), which is no way to earn a team's late-innings trust.

Leyland was asked Sunday about the Coke conundrum. Good pitcher. Bad results, sometimes anyway, particularly against those guys who swing right-handed.

"It's puzzling to me," Leyland said, mentioning that he and bench coach Gene Lamont had also talked about Coke's mystifying ways. "What's amazing is that he has such a good repertoire. He has an excellent change-up and a good breaking ball.

"It's not like he's just a fastball pitcher wearing out the fastball. He should get right-handers out."

Among those curious about Coke's right-handed hassles would be Phillip Douglas Coke.

"It's not for lack of effort," he said, standing at his locker following a postgame workout. "It's a lack of location.

"Hitters seem to pick the right time (to swing) when I lack location on a pitch."

Mostly, the location issues affect his fastball. In last Wednesday's game against the Twins, Coke got a pair of fastballs high in the strike zone that the Twins walloped for hits that helped turn a Tigers lead into a 3-2 Twins victory.

Sunday's story had parallels. Vernon Wells, during the Yankees' two-run eighth, hit a double on a Coke fastball that all but begged to be ripped.

Location, location, location

Why is he not throwing more secondary pitches in these situations? A change-up, especially one as good as Coke's, often tends to work better against opposite-side hitters. Coke's curveball can be nasty, as well.

But the fastball is almost any pitcher's primary option and no one expects Coke to put it on the shelf. He cannot abandon it. He simply must throw it to spots that make it tougher on hitters who love a 93-mph pitch that cruises, belt-high, across home plate's middle.

Coke understands it is all about the basics. Basic fastball, located properly. Secondary pitches that bite downward and don't spin like a top twirling on a table.

He had it going last fall during that heady Tigers playoff run.

"That fastball, I was throwing where I wanted it 99 percent of the time," he said Sunday, after almost all of his teammates had cleared from the clubhouse. "I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just a matter of executing it."

Execution. Sometimes a relief pitcher must wonder: Isn't that what I'm experiencing during these late-inning ordeals?

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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In seven seasons, right-handers are batting .301 vs. Phil Coke. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News