Detroit — It wasn’t quite déjà vu for Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the eighth inning in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Last weekend, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, a left-hander, was due up, and with a four-run lead, Leyland chose to have right-handed closer Joaquin Benoit pitch to Ortiz instead of a left-handed reliever.
Ortiz launched a tying grand slam, and the Red Sox scored once in the ninth to win the game and send the series to Detroit 1-1.
On Tuesday in Game 3, the Tigers trailed 1-0 in the ninth with Ortiz coming to bat and the bases empty.
This time, Leyland chose to go with left-handed reliever Phil Coke, who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 18.
Coke responded, getting Ortiz to ground out to second. It was the only batter Coke faced, as right-hander Al Alburquerque came in and retired Mike Napoli.
For Coke, facing Ortiz didn’t compare to the Game 2 scenario.
“It’s not the same situation from the other day,” said Coke, who wasn’t on the active roster for the Division Series against the A’s. “We were up four runs and the bases were loaded — it’s totally different.
“(Leyland is) playing to win and (in Game 1) he went with the same guys he threw out there Game 2, and it didn’t go in our favor. We weren’t making the pitches we should have made and when you don’t make pitches, you don’t have a chance to get outs.”
Though traditional baseball wisdom would call for Leyland to go with a lefty against the left-handed Ortiz, Coke didn’t question Leyland’s strategy, given Benoit’s track record this season.
“That was the way that game played out,” Coke said. “Benoit has been huge for us all season long. I don’t see any issue with the way it played out as far as the people used the other night.
“I fully expected to see Benoit in there at some point in time like that inning in a pressure situation. You need outs and you have to face the big guy in their lineup and he’s been successful with that all season.”
Coke had a stellar postseason last year, pitching 102⁄3innings and allowing one run on six hits.
But that success didn’t stretch into the regular season this year, as Coke struggled to find his consistency. He allowed 23 earned runs in 381⁄3 innings and had a reduced role toward the end of the season, mostly as a situational lefty, facing left-handed batters almost exclusively.
To get a chance in a tight postseason game provided some confidence for Coke. Ortiz is now 2-for-19 against Coke.
“For me to be in there in a one-run game late in the innings and nobody on with one out, I just go out there and do the best job that I can,” he said. “That’s exactly what I did and unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the two or three hits we needed at the end of the game.”
“It was very nice to be able to do that.”
Catcher Alex Avila said the outing was an encouraging sign for Coke, especially given his long layoff since his last appearance, when he gave up three earned runs and recorded just two outs. He was shelved for the rest of the regular season with arm soreness.
“It’s been a while. That was a big out he got, obviously,” Avila said. “Good for him and hopefully he’ll get a few more big outs for us.”
Coke pitched in the Florida instructional leagues to stay sharp and to prepare for possible action against the Red Sox. The simulated games and side pitching sessions weren’t quite what Coke faced in Ortiz, but getting through his first major league action in almost a month might be a big step in getting more appearances in the playoffs.