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September 21, 2017

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Coke quenches Tigers' thirst for security late in the game

DETROIT -- If the Detroit Tigers are to celebrate their first World Series in 28 years it could ultimately depend more on how they finish games than how they start them, leaving the Motor City's fate in the glove of unheralded Phil Coke.

Until Detroit's American League Championship Series (ALCS) sweep of the New York Yankees last week, many baseball fans considered Coke one of the world's best known soft drinks rather than a hard-throwing reliever known for his late game mastery.

But when regular closer Jose Valverde suffered a post-season meltdown, Coke slipped into the role and recorded the last out in the final three games of the ALCS.

"I don't have any idea what's going on, I just know I'm having a good time," Coke, whose two postseason saves are one more than he had all season, told reporters. "We have a common goal that we're trying to achieve and the last thing I want to be known for is the one that didn't do his job."

Valverde's nightmare resulted in Coke's dream come true, the anonymous middle reliever thrust into the spotlight and poised to play a leading role on baseball's biggest stage.

Led by reigning American League Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player Justin Verlander, the Tigers' starting rotation is of the highest quality and a known quantity.

In nine postseason games, Detroit starters have posted a miniscule 1.02 earned run average (ERA) and limited the mighty New York Yankees to just six runs in the ALCS.

While Detroit starters were painting masterpieces, Valverde was unable to provide the finishing touches, surrendering seven runs in three playoff games.

With the Tigers up 4-0 in Game One of the ALCS and cruising towards an easy win, the Yankees pounded Valverde for four runs in the ninth inning, including a pair of homers, forcing Detroit to stage a late rally and claim victory in 12 innings.

Tigers manger Jim Leyland had seen enough, deciding things would go better with Coke.

"No, he wasn't (expecting to close)," said Leyland. "That is probably the good thing about it, he didn't expect it ... He didn't have a lot of time to think about things and reacted and pitched.

"Nobody knew it would play out this way."

In five seasons spilt between the Yankees and Tigers, Coke has never quite settled into a permanent role.

After acquiring the lefthander from New York in 2009, as a throw in to the trade that brought center fielder Austin Jackson and starter Max Scherzer to Detroit, the Tigers flirted with the idea of developing Coke into a starter.

But after 14 starts in 2011 that produced a 3-9 record, the Tigers abandoned the experiment and returned Coke to the bullpen as a setup man, where this season he made 66 appearances posting 2-3 record with a 4.00 ERA.

Now, Coke, armed with a mid-90s fastball, has inherited one of baseball's most pressure packed jobs, a task the easy-going lefty has embraced and seems ideally suited.

"We just get the ball when given and go out and do our thing," said Coke, who won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009. "I'm just going out there and doing what I need to do and whether it's to end the game or it's to be in the fifth inning and throw a couple innings, it doesn't matter.

"My job is not to worry about that; it's to throw strikes and get outs. That's what my job is and that's where my head's at and that's all I pay attention to."

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