Tigers lefty Phil Coke.
Detroit, MI-  The Tigers had to deviate from their regular ninth inning plan Tuesday night as closer Jose Valverde injured his wrist and was unable to come in for the final three outs.  As Valverde crouched in the pen holding his wrist, Phil Coke was given the hurry up signal and the adrenalin starting pumping in anticipation of the pending save opportunity.

It was the same feeling Coke experienced in the visiting bullpen at Comerica Park on September 1st, 2008.  Although he was a member of the Yankees, Coke’s big league career began in Detroit.  The Yankees were in town for a make-up game and Coke had just arrived from the Yanks AAA affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Bright-eyed and nervous like any other rookie, Coke was sitting in the pen soaking it all in when Bullpen Coach Mike Harkey told Coke to start warming up.  Brian Bruney had just pitched the 6th inning and with the Yankees leading 13-9, the 7th inning would be Coke’s.

“Harkey told me to get loose and just do the same thing I did in the minors,” Coke said.  “When I started warming up I was throwing the ball to the back wall of the bullpen, I couldn’t hit the catcher’s glove.”

Not a good sign.

When the Tigers came up in the bottom of the 7th, Coke’s first opportunity had arrived. 

 “When I got to the mound, I looked around the infield and I said ‘Hey, you’re Derek Jeter.’”   “Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi were all standing there, I couldn’t believe it.”

The experience had turned surreal for Coke.

Future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez greeted Coke and asked him what he threw.  After they squared away the signals, Pudge gave Coke a pat on the back and said, “Ok Papi, let’s go.”

Keep in mind that Coke was not feeling a whole lot of confidence at this point.  After peppering the back wall of the bullpen with his warm-ups, things didn’t get any better when he arrived on the mound throwing his first tune-up toss to the backstop.

To make matters worse,  Coke would have to face the top of the Tigers line-up in his debut.  

Miraculously his first pitch to Curtis Granderson painted the outside black at 93 MPH.  Three pitches later he fanned Granderson on a 96 MPH heater.  It was the first time he had reached 96.

As the nerves began to settle, he then retired Placido Polanco on a pop up.  After Magglio Ordonez singled to right field, he faced Miguel Cabrera with two outs.  Coke’s first pitch again went to the backstop advancing Ordonez.  After running the count full, he got Cabrera to swing and miss at a back-foot slider, ending the inning.

Coke marched off the mound wondering what had just happened.  How could he be so incredibly wild with his warm-ups only to knife through the heart of the Tigers order?

After that debut, he would announce his arrival by sprinting in from the pen.

“I had so much adrenalin that I just started sprinting from the bullpen to the mound and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

That sprint has now become his trademark.  On the scoreboard at Comerica Park, a timer clocks Coke from the pen to the mound typically at about 12 seconds.

Coke will always remember every detail of his debut in Detroit, and his sprint is a constant reminder.



Andrew Lewis
06/21/2012 11:53

Nice story. Thanks, Mario.


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