Phil Coke, the Real MVP of the ALCS

When I walked into the Comerica Park press box this morning, the first person I encountered was longtime Detroit Free Press baseball scribe John Lowe. I asked him who the series MVP has been thus far. His response was, “How about Phil Coke?”

Lowe went on to note that Delmon Young had driven in the go-ahead run in all three contests [which he proceeded to do again in Game 4], but his initial suggestion is in accord with my opinion. The Detroit bullpen has been in disarray, and Coke stepped up to save the day. Following a Game 1 hold that preceded Jose Valverde’s implosion, he shut the door in the next two and was on the mound for the final six outs of Game 4. The slider he threw to Raul Ibanez on Tuesday night may be the most important pitch of the Tigers season.

It wasn’t to be expected. The colorful left-hander had an inconsistent campaign that included a .324 BAA and just one save in three opportunities. In four regular-season appearances against the Yankees, he gave up hits to six of the 12 batters he faced.

In the ALCS, he was nails. In closing out Games 2 and 3, Coke became first reliever to have two post-season saves after having one or less during the regular season. Vida Blue [1972] and Bob McClure [1982] each had two, but were regular-season starters working out of the bullpen.

Coke’s Game 3 strikeout of Raul Ibanez was likely the tipping point of the series. The southpaw had a huge advantage in regard to their lefty-lefty splits, but Ibanez had been having an October for the ages. Were he to come through yet again, the Yankees would have put themselves in a position to have their best pitcher on the mound for Game 4, trailing two games to one.

Coke had retired Ibanez in each of the first two games, but he obviously knew how hot he had been. Their history also went back to the days Coke wore pinstripes and Ibanez played for the Phillies.

“He’s killing everybody,” said Coke, after the game. “He’s done things that nobody has ever done in the game of baseball, so my hat is off to Raul. He took me deep in the World Series, in 2009, about 460 [feet] into the gap, if I recall correctly.”

What he’ll recall from Tuesday night is that he fanned Ibanez with a 3-2 slider that catcher Alex Avila called the best he’s ever thrown. He might be right. The vertical break of Coke’s slider averages just over two inches and the one he threw to Ibanez dove more than five inches.

“He made some tough pitches in tough situations,” agreed outfielder Austin Jackson. “That last pitch definitely proved that he is able to make a tough pitch in a tough situation.”

It was a pitch — and pitches — made with confidence. Tigers fans have often found themselves reaching for a antacid bottle when Coke toes the rubber, but the left-hander relishes big moments. It was a point brought up by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, who opined that Coke looks like he wants to be out there in big situations.

Coke, who rarely lacks for a good quotes, explained it this way.

“On a 3-2 count, [the hitter] can choose to stand there and watch it, or he can choose to swing out of his shoes. I can choose to be scared and throw a ball, and load the bases and possibly get yanked out of the game, and we could possibly end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Or, I can make my pitch and have him swing and miss and we’re all happy.”

Tigers fans have a lot to be happy about right now, and their new, at least for now, closer is one of them. He wasn’t named ALCS MVP — Young got the nod — but be maybe deserved the honor, if only for one pitch — the slider that helped carry the Detroit Tigers to the World Series.



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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