Phil Coke replaced Joba Chamberlain with the Tigers trailing 4-1 on Monday night. He got the A's out on two ground balls. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — Fans were loud and clear. They wanted Phil Coke gone.
But Tigers officials held firm, believing the veteran left-handed reliever still had the skill set and arsenal to get hitters out in crucial situations.
And they might be right.
“He’s been pitching really well for quite a while now,” catcher Alex Avila said after Monday night’s 5-4 victory over the A’s. “He’s gotten some big outs over the last couple weeks for us.”
None might have been bigger than the three he got Monday.
Coke replaced Joba Chamberlain with the Tigers trailing 4-1. The A’s were in position to turn the game into a rout with runners on first and second with nobody out.
Seven pitches later, Coke was out of it. He induced two ground balls, the first off the bat of Alberto Callaspo the Tigers nearly turned into a triple play.
“I did,” Coke said when asked if he thought he had the triple play. “I was pretty stoked about that. It would’ve been one of the cooler things that I would’ve been able to say I was a part of.”
Coke then got Eric Sogard to ground out weakly to second base to end the threat.
It marked the seventh consecutive scoreless outing for Coke, who’s struck out six and walked one during those 61⁄3 innings, holding opponents to a .182 average. Coke’s ERA has gone from 6.56 to 5.16.
Coke had a rough year last season, posting career highs in ERA (5.40) and WHIP (1.670). He looked nothing like the pitcher the Tigers believed they got in the December 2009 trade that also landed them Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson.
The rough season led some to suspect the Tigers would let Coke walk. They didn’t, instead giving him a $1.9 million non-guaranteed deal that would have cost the team substantially less if they cut Coke during spring training.
His location is a big key to his improvements. So is a sharper breaking pitch that’s become effective against right-handers who have given him fits for years. And Coke’s fastball can still get up to the mid-90s.
But the biggest difference, Coke said, is how he feels. He said he felt “absolutely terrible” physically — he landed on the disabled list last spring with a groin injury, then battled elbow problems into the fall.
As a result, he never got on track.
“I’d feel like I made a lot of progress one day, get away from the bad feeling in my elbow,” said Coke, 31. “Then I’d turn around and throw a pitch, and it was like, I didn’t make progress at all. I’d take four steps back.”
But during spring training Coke didn’t pitch particularly well, either, allowing 13 hits in 111⁄3 innings.
Yet, he survived — and one day things felt better again.
“It just showed up,” Coke said. “One day it was like, ‘Oh, weird, where have you been? I’ve been needing for a while, and you’ve been abandoning me. What’s going on?’
“Every time I’m pitching, something good ends up happening, rather than something terrible. So I’m pretty happy about it.”
So, too, are the Tigers.
They still have a below-average bullpen, statistically speaking, and have some decisions to make ahead of the July 31 trade deadline.
Then, the Tigers must decide what to do when former All-Star reliever Joel Hanrahan (Tommy John surgery) returns. He’s expected to pitch off a mound this week.
Who loses their job should Hanrahan come back strong?
For the longest time, Coke was the top candidate.
But, Coke is a different pitcher — he’s pitching in critical situations again, and pitching well.
“I think a lot of it with Cokey has been, he’s pitched well and it’s rolled into confidence-building,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “His confidence is higher.
“Any player, when they’re more confident, they’re going to be more successful.”