June 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers' Justin Verlander, Phil Coke finally find their groove

Cleveland — In one corner of the Tigers clubhouse late Saturday night, sitting by himself in front of his locker, dressed in a postgame ensemble of navy blue shirt, gray slacks, and a scrub-forest beard that has become his trademark, was Justin Verlander.

He was as relaxed, as pleasant, as conversational and kicked-back as Verlander has appeared since last October’s playoffs.

And why might that be on a night when a bullpen blew his victory and a 4-2 lead the Tigers had hand-crafted on a tough evening in Cleveland, with a sellout crowd at Progressive Field screaming at a team from Detroit that has had more problems than a first-place club typically features during an entire season, let alone 71 games?

It was because his team had won, 5-4. Verlander had not not gotten the victory, not statistically, but then again, he had triumphed. He had pitched well. He had gone seven innings: four hits, eight strikeouts, a lone walk. And that is a degree of peace, a sense of serenity, you do not always see in Verlander, especially during those weird interludes when he is struggling.

But there it was Saturday night, this glow from the clubhouse’s corner shadows, perhaps because a 31-year-old pitcher who has had an alarming falloff from his old, Cy Young Award-caliber ways, was back to pitching the brand of baseball that can help a playoff-chasing team prosper.

Verlander was not Saturday’s lone tale of tranquility. On the other side of that visitor’s clubhouse, toweling off, checking to make sure TV cameras weren’t on him as he slipped into his civilian togs and greeted questioners, was Phil Coke.

Imagine this scene straight from what, a few days ago, would have been Coke’s fantasy factory. He got Saturday’s save. And he did not finish sloppily. He came on in the 10th, with a lead the width of a thread, and struck out three Indians batters on a battery of 95-97-mph fastballs (Progressive Field’s generous radar gun is irrelevant) and sliders that helped restore, ever slightly, a left-handed reliever’s role, and definitely, his dignity.

When a person who knows Verlander and Coke tries to make sense of their personalities and how it affects their respective pitching arts you are tempted to summon Franz Kafka in a quest to explain their situations with any sense of precision.

Starting to click

Begin with Verlander. The reason his disposition was important, and in fact so welcomed, following Saturday night’s dramatics, is because figuring out Verlander is as difficult as figuring out a slump he has been dealing with for much of the past two seasons.

Everyone knows his story. But no one really knows him. I’ve asked him to sit and talk about his life away from baseball, all because each of us has dealt with challenges and struggles in relationships, in our single lives, and in our partnerships, that definitely do have an impact on our psyches and perhaps on our careers.

We all relate to the break-up of a longtime romantic partner, as he endured a couple of years ago. We relate to new relationships. We understand how it is to balance jobs and personal lives. And we often talk about it, freely, whether we lead fairly low-profile lives or enjoy a certain celebrity, which apart from a Hollywood star would be hard-pressed to match Verlander’s status.

He has chosen to keep a broad line between the baseball diamond and his private life. Fair enough. It’s his call. But without knowing the person as deeply as we would like to know Verlander, it leaves you dealing with only one sphere of his life, the professional.

And that becomes a clinical analysis, quite antiseptic. It assumes one’s daily experiences and conditions have no presence in performance. That a life, and a soul, and a mind conditioned to absorb all consciousness and experience, have little interaction with a pitcher’s mechanics and execution during a baseball game.

I can’t imagine that, for anyone in any job. But minus any deeper window into Verlander’s universe, we were left Saturday night with something quite simple, something quite uplifting nonetheless. It was a 31-year-old man sitting there, with his back to that dark corner locker, awash in the gaiety he displayed when he first broke in with the Tigers nearly a decade ago.

It got downright funny late Saturday. Verlander has been through a grinder of late with his pitching reconstruction. He actually laughed when he was asked to detail what, specifically, he had done in concert with Jeff Jones, the Tigers pitching coach, with manager Brad Ausmus, and with all the wise men and soothsayers who have converged in a bid to get Verlander back on track.

“Oh boy,” he said, taking a long breath. “I changed my set-up, changed my arm action, changed my landing.”

He talked about his “arm circle not wrapping as much.” He spoke of a “kinetic chain of events.”

And, then, with a dash of amusing irony, he said, “I have to stop tinkering and get back to throwing the way I can.”

He advised us, as did Ausmus, to not look at Saturday’s game as some sort of mission-accomplished declaration.

“Even if you make an adjustment,” he said, “it’s not going to be an easy time.”

We knew as much. Anyone who pries apart baseball’s tissue and bones understands this game’s complexities. We don’t always understand, in a sport where money is more of a fixation for fans than for athletes, that the pride of their craft is what stirs these men throughout their careers.

That made the opposite end of Detroit’s clubhouse Saturday equally fascinating, and even gratifying. A man who has been in misery was standing there answering questions about one game’s successes versus one night’s or one season’s disasters.

Closing time

Coke, contrary to perception, is as simple as any player who has stepped through Comerica Park’s doors these past 10 years. The fact is, he is ultra-sensitive. He has almost a super-human desire to succeed. He strives with a kind of consuming effort to validate, to authenticate, to make indelible his contribution to a team and to a game that for him is far more than vocation and profession.

That’s why, when he was approached late Saturday night, the man who can spin all kinds of baroque narratives and soliloquies when he is talking off the cuff in front of his locker, all but shut it down, preferring to talk about a team victory and how “it’s nice to see everybody click.”

Coke, the man who got the save, who torched three Indians batters in the 10th, would only say that the ball has been “coming out of my hand better” and that “it just seems to be there.”

You wanted to shake your head at the understatement when he said, “I felt I was lacking that for a while.”

Coke didn’t want to make Saturday about him. Neither did Verlander. But their pitching performances were Saturday’s main stories, just as their expressions and words afterward told you what neither of these professional athletes could have admitted as midnight approached.

They are men. They are human beings. They happen to play baseball for a living. And that they and their team succeed, aided by what they uniquely bring to a collective effort, is all that matters deep within those hearts they don’t want the outside world to completely glimpse.



Tigers reliever Phil Coke and slugger Miguel Cabrera celebrate Detroit's third consecutive victory Saturday night in Cleveland. / Tony Dejak / Associated Press
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