By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) - Phil Coke had already changed into his street clothes. He was literally out the door of the Detroit Tigers clubhouse, passing a herd of reporters on his way after receiving news that his team had optioned his contract to Triple-A Toledo.
Then he came back.
Coke stood in front of his locker, a pained expression on his face, a signed paper with his minor league assignment in his pants pocket, and he answered every question asked of him.
The reliever's ERA, at 5.00, is the highest it has ever been, and giving up a two-RBI hit to the first batter he faced in Monday's 6-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins was the last straw.
Coke did not like the move, but he said he understood it.
"I'm not happy, but they're doing the best thing for the team right now," he said. "When you make a few mistakes, especially in a tighter race than expected, they end up proving to be a little more costly, and they're trying to limit as many mistakes in a playoff race as possible, and I've been making the most mistakes currently out of the bullpen.
"I've cost us five games this year – don't think that that's not something in the back of my mind," Coke added. "I know. I know what my record says, I know what my ERA says, I know hits and walks and strikeouts and that stuff. I know that it's not what it's supposed to be."
The reliever did seem surprised at the timing of the move, though, considering the improvement he had made through since a troublesome first half of the season.
Through the first half of the season, Coke pitched 29.1 innings over 30 games. His ERA was 5.83. He had allowed 19 earned runs and given up 15 walks. Opponents had a .352 on-base percentage against him.
Since the All-Star break, Coke threw 6.2 innings over 12 games. Using Coke in shorter stints, often as little as one batter at a time, seemed to be helping. His ERA in that span was 1.35, and he had allowed just one earned run. Opponents were batting .286 against him, but he had not given up any walks.
"I figured it would have happened in the first half, not right now, especially since velocity's been back, gotten a lot of key outs recently, been on a decent run of no earned runs," Coke said.
Even though he did well in most of those quick outings, Coke was bothered by being used so little.
"It's not something that I'm really happy about no matter," Coke said. "If I was out there for one guy it was really annoying because of being a competitor. You want to go out there and you want to do everything you can, turn the inning over to the next guy if necessary, or go out there and handle multiple innings, if that's the load that's required of you."
Manager Jim Leyland was fairly adamant Coke was scheduled to return to the majors Sept. 1.
"I want to make sure everybody understands that we're not down on Phil Coke," Leyland said. "He's got to do a little bit better job of staying out of the middle of the plate.
"This is not punishment because this guy, if you look at stuff of left-handed relievers, this guy throws 94, 95, good curveball, good change-up," Leyland added. "We have struggled at times this year talking about Coke's situation, so I don't want to sit here and lie and say we haven't discussed some things prior, but this is a good opportunity, but I want to emphasize he's coming back up."
Coke had entered Monday's game in the fifth inning, with one out, the bases loaded and former MVP and four-time All-Star Justin Morneau at the plate.
Morneau doubled in two runs, increased the Tigers' deficit from two runs to four runs.
Coke intentionally walked the next batter and then was removed from the game. He had been booed when he sprinted out from the bullpen, and he was booed as he headed to the dugout after facing just two batters.
Prior to Coke entering the game, starting pitcher Rick Porcello had given up a home run and three singles in the fourth inning, and Porcello started the fifth by giving up a walk, a single and another walk. That is when Leyland inserted Coke.
"I was just trying to stop it," Leyland said. "I tried to come out of it with nothing, and obviously it didn't work."
After the game the skipper said Coke took the news in a professional manner but was very disappointed in and opposed to the move, and Leyland seemed to respect that position.
"I don't blame people for being upset," Leyland said. "I understand that totally. But you also have to understand the purpose that you're going down there for so that you can accomplish what we're trying to get accomplished, and I think Cokey will.
"I don't think Cokey necessarily agreed with the move, and I think that's fine," Leyland added. "I have absolutely no problem with that. He's a veteran guy, and it's a little bit of a shock to your system. We understand that."
As the questions began winding down at Coke's locker, he took longer to answer one inquiry in particular – whether he was frustrated by the recent struggles. Coke sighed, looked away, rolled his eyes toward the other reporters and eventually looked back to the questioner after a moment of annoyed silence.
"That," he said, "would be an understatement."
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