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Tigers' vulnerability in World Series starts – and ends? – with bullpen

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – Phil Coke grew up near here, at 3 years old told his dad he'd be a ballplayer near here and dreamed all the stuff boys dream of anywhere. In fact, he was in this ballpark – now called AT&T Park – about a decade ago when he experienced one of those singularly Bay Area baseball moments.

That is, Barry Bonds homered. And everybody cheered. Especially young Phil Coke.

He was a pitcher at San Joaquin Delta junior college. Accompanied by a friend, he'd arrived a touch late for the game. As they were coming up to the park, they heard the announcement that Bonds would be the next batter. They raced through the ticket line, up the stairs and emerged from the tunnel near the left-field foul pole.

In Coke's words, "Pitch, swing, his bat, the ball into the water."

Not long after, Bonds hit another.

"Two bombs," he said. "That was pretty cool."

The next time Phil Coke came to AT&T Park, it was mid-afternoon on a cool autumn day. He sat this time behind a table, under a sign with his name on it, not more than 50 feet from where he'd seen Bonds unload on some poor jamoke paid to get him out.

That day was Tuesday. Coke came as a Detroit Tiger, with the rest of the Tigers, champions of the American League. The World Series would begin Wednesday, and now Phil Coke is the guy who'll stand out there as the jamoke paid to get Giants out. The names have changed – they're Posey and Sandoval and Scutaro now – but the place remains the same, the stakes are higher than ever, and the job is his.

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What job, exactly, has been the lingering question for a couple weeks, or about the time Jose Valverde, the erratic closer, started giving up leads again. In a best-of-seven series that would appear to lean toward the Tigers, they are most vulnerable in the bullpen, in the choices manager Jim Leyland will make in the waning innings of a close game.

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Phil Coke celebrates after closing the Tigers' sweep of the Yankees in the ALCS. (AP)

He will return to Valverde, his regular man for three seasons. Or he will ride the hotter arm, in the left-handed Coke. Or he will turn to Joaquin Benoit, particularly at AT&T Park, where fly balls might be more willing to come down. Or he will take the sum of their strengths, along with those of Octavio Dotel and Al Alburquerque, and spend a little more time doing laps to the mound.

It's where it could go wrong for the Tigers. So happens, it's where it has gone right for the Giants, who've had their flirtations with regular closers since Brian Wilson had elbow surgery, but generally push the advantages of a flexible and committed band of men.

The Giants and manager Bruce Bochy have had seven months of practice at it. The Tigers and Leyland came to this near the end of their division series, when Valverde started leaving pitches in the middle of the zone. By the time the ninth inning of Game 1 comes along, Valverde will not have pitched for 11 days, other than an intra-squad game in which he gave up hits to two batters and walked another.

"Just going to play it by ear, see what happens," Leyland said Tuesday. "I don't really have any definite information on that yet. We'll just see how the game plays out, who's coming up. Like I always say, I hope we have to worry about that. If we do, we'll come up with somebody."

It certainly doesn't sound like Valverde won his job back in that intra-squad game, which brings them back – to some degree or another – to Coke. He owned some of the huge moments in the Tigers' ALCS sweep of the New York Yankees, including the two-inning save at Yankee Stadium in Game 2, the save of Justin Verlander's tour-de-force in Game 3, and the final two innings of the clinching Game 4.

The collage of the Tigers' first World Series run since 2006 would hold an image of Coke striking out Raul Ibanez with a curveball at the end of Game 3, along with his dramatic glove spike to launch the clinching fireworks over Comerica Park on Thursday night.

This was a pitcher with one save in 66 appearances during the regular season, against whom right-handers batted .396, and whose second-half ERA was 5.82. On a days' rest, the sort of thing that comes along fairly frequently for relief pitchers, Coke had an ERA of 7.43.

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He does have a high-end fastball and, at times (ask Ibanez), a devastating breaking ball. And he is one of those pitchers whose numbers don't quite align with his stuff. He seems, however, a happy and game soul who would not shrink from something so stressful as the last inning on any given October night.

Over four appearances in the ALCS and three appearances before that in the division series, Coke has not allowed a run. Against the Yankees, Leyland seemed again and again to come up against the early part of the order and the game on the line. So, over those four appearances, Coke faced Robinson Cano four times, Ibanez three times and Ichiro three times. All left-handed hitters. In the final two innings of that series, Coke plowed through Ichiro, Nick Swisher, Cano, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Jayson Nix. Lefties, righties, whomever, he got them all.

The key to all this, you know, besides the big fastball and the greater command?

"Yeah, I'm having a good time," Coke said. "I'm not worried about anything. I'm just smiling.

"When I allow myself to let it happen, it's when I excel. … I just try to think of my daughter and my wife and my family and why I'm doing this particular profession at this point in my life. Seriously, it's a kids' game. It's a good time. It's fun. I enjoy myself thoroughly when I play."

Sometimes it can be broken down that easy. Sometimes, where "pitch, swing, his bat, the ball into the water" once stood, "pitch, swing, his bat, the glove to the turf" is just as cool.

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