April 24, 2014 at 6:29 am

Lynn Henning

Despite Tigers reliever Phil Coke's struggles, he's 'here to win'

Phil Coke allowed three runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning Tuesday night. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — Watching him pitch in Florida and in Detroit these past two months has been like gazing at a tightrope walker.

Phil Coke seems always to be in peril. Sometimes he makes it to the other side and lives for another day. There are other moments, such as in Tuesday’s ninth inning against the White Sox, when, a step from safety, he fails and falls and an audience is left to believe he is, at last, finished as a Tigers relief pitcher.

“There seems to be a lot of unrest out there,” Coke acknowledged Wednesday during a long clubhouse chat in front of his locker, where he stood and answered questions in his loquacious way.

“I understand that. I’m not asking anyone to not care. I expect fans to care that much. They care. I care.”

Tuesday’s latest brush with banishment came within a single pitch of being a non-story in a game the Tigers led 8-3 as Coke arrived for the ninth.

Everything began more than smoothly. Coke gunned down the first two batters, Leury Garcia and Jordan Danks, with fastballs that reached 92 mph and with a new high-caliber slider.

And then it fell apart. Marcus Semien slammed a change-up for a double. Paul Konerko ripped a fastball for a single to score Semien and make it an 8-4 game. Adam Dunn arrived, a power hitter, but a left-handed muscleman who strikes out plenty and whom Coke quickly planted in an 0-and-2 hole with two called strikes.

Coke intended to put away Dunn with the new high-speed slider he has been featuring since spring camp. It involves a grip that enables Coke to stay more on top of the ball, to throw it with zip and avoid hanging a bigger-breaking slider that has been something of an issue.

The pitch arrived, at 90 mph — and dead in the middle of the plate. Dunn hammered it deep into the right-field seats. It was 8-6, Coke was done, and fans who were afraid something like this might happen tore into him with boos as he strode to Detroit’s dugout, sick at heart, and now owner of a garish 13.50 ERA.

“It was a pitch I never executed with my hand and it stayed in the middle,” Coke said, reviewing the crash scene, “and it probably ended up killing someone. I think he broke the seat.”

Options are few

That’s also Coke. He doesn’t poke fun at a bad performance, which he loathes. He tries to counter a bad moment or memory by taking a self-inflicted hit.

That might not be enough to stave off a firing squad the Tigers have had on alert since March, when Coke came close to not making the team and losing out on most of the $1.9 million salary he now will make in 2014.

But he pitched well in spring camp’s final, make-it-or-break-it appearance and landed a job and his full 2014 paycheck. That the Tigers had no left-handed options beyond Ian Krol and Coke explained then, as it does now, why he continues to pitch in Detroit.

Reprieves, though, are growing thin and Coke knows it.

“I knew I was kind of behind the eight-ball,” Coke said, speaking of his eleventh-hour roster bid in Florida. “I knew I was competing for my livelihood when he (manager Brad Ausmus) told me I was on the bubble.

“So I just went out and competed by butt off.”

His bosses, Ausmus and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, are not ducking the Coke question. Each spoke Wednesday of a pitcher and his plainly precarious place. They were respectful but direct.

Ausmus was asked if Coke might be used in so-called low-leverage situations when a game isn’t on the line, or a single left-handed batter might be Coke’s assignment.

“There have got to be spots for him to pitch,” Ausmus said. “Ideally you probably want him to pitch against a lefty, that’s your best option. But as much as you want to put a pitcher in position to succeed, you also want to win the game.”

'I'm not done'

It does not require a linguistics professor to read into Ausmus’ words: Coke can’t afford any Tuesday repeats. The same message, diplomatically stated, came from Dombrowski.

“He’s been encouraging at times, and other times he has scuffled,” Dombrowski said of Coke, who has pitched since Opening Day in six games, spanning four innings, allowing eight hits, six runs, striking out two batters (both Tuesday) while walking one.

“He’s going to have to pitch effectively, and nights like last night, when he strikes out the first two batters, you feel good. He just has to continue to do it.”

Coke, not surprisingly, is aching for his next shot. He is the son of a prison guard. His dad’s job seems to have imbued the son with a sense there can be no ease, no acceptance, of whatever negatives life presents.

“I want back out there so bad,” Coke said, his words now a torrent. “Honestly, it could be even a tighter (closer score) situation. I’m the only guy out there (available)?

“Good. I want to show everybody that I’m not washed up, I’m not done. I’m here to compete. I’m here to win.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

More Lynn Henning