Phil Coke delivers during live batting practice on Wednesday. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. – Phil Coke has been too important to the Tigers not to be important anymore.
So all signs the lefty reliever can be a major contributor this season are welcome -- even if they're just early signs, as they've been so far.
Coke threw his first live batting practice on Wednesday.
For some established pitchers, the first such session is taken in stride. Throw your pitches, take a deep breath, move on.
Coke doesn't operate that way. Whatever his stride may be, it's unique.
Remember, he's the guy who charges in from the bullpen for every appearance. Jim Leyland always spoke of someday being run over by Coke.
"There I'll be, lying flat," Leyland would say.
We're not talking about that sort of stride, though.
We're talking about taking in stride the challenge of simply facing hitters, even if they're your own teammates, as you approach a season needing a comeback.
After going 0-5 with a 5.40 ERA last year, "comeback" is the correct word to describe it, isn't it, Phil?
"I wouldn't look at it that way," said Coke. "I'm looking at it more as the need for a season in which I would do what I typically do."
As opposed to?
"Some fluke season in which I was telling everyone what was coming. It didn't matter how good of a pitch I made last year, or how bad of a pitch, it got clobbered."
Indeed it did.
Even left-handers pummeled Coke -- hitting .299 after a .237 career average against him previously.
"As poor as they were, the results speak for themselves," Coke said. "There were times it felt I was pressing."
Pressing to do well?
"Pressing to breathe," said Coke, who saved the first game of the 2013 season for the Tigers, but blew a lead and lost the second game in Minnesota.
"I left last spring training totally up for the bullpen-by-committee thing, and physically I thought I was ready to go, but it never came together."
With that in mind, his return to the mound on Wednesday was more important than most.
Not make-or-break, mind you.
Not even close to that.
But Coke wanted to be relaxed -- and that's not a state of mind he often achieved last year.
So how did the first session go?
"After the first couple of pitches," he said. "I told myself, ‘Stay focused. Go after the hitters, but don't make it look like you are.’
"By the 10th pitch of the 30 I threw, I felt my body starting to react the way I've been working on it to react. It was a good feeling."
With a good feeling came good pitches.
"Pitches I wanted no part of," Torii Hunter said. "You don't expect to see some of that (stuff) until the regular season."
What was different for Coke was that he reminded himself to relax -- and did.
Last year, when he told himself to relax, "countless times" he didn't.
"I wouldn't listen to myself," he said.
Granted, Coke was throwing batting practice compared to game conditions, but the challenge of doing what you tell yourself to do, no matter the situation, is still the same.
An important first outing, in other words.
"I thought so," said pitching coach Jeff Jones.
"Absolutely," said Coke, "and from a mindset, it's going to be better next time out."
A mindset compared to putting on a dazzling display of pitches, that is.
Coke is fully aware that an attempt to look 150 percent when his arm strength is "maybe 50 percent would be completely dumb."
But the fact that some of his offerings looked like effective regular-season pitches was a bonus.
"Everything can be a tool to learn from," said Coke.
That means both good pitches and bad seasons.
"I have a whole bucketful of stuff from last season being abysmal to pull from and remember," he said. "Stuff about which I'm going say, 'I'm not going to do this again.'
"But you also have to wipe the slate clean when how you felt and what you accomplished somehow didn't match up.
"You have to move on to the next moment and focus on what your job is."
And for Coke, being a key part of the Tigers' bullpen is still the job.