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Tiger Coke ends first half of season strong

SONORA NATIVE and Detroit Tiger southpaw Phil Coke fires against the New York Mets earlier this season. Coke has been used by Manager Jim Leyland as both a starter and reliever in 2011. In his Bay Area starting pitching debut in April, Coke blanked the Oakland A's for seven innings, yielded just two hits and earned the win. MCT PHOTO
Last Thursday night, Mike Moustakas, the Kansas City Royals’ highly-heralded rookie and one-time first-round draft pick, stepped into the batter’s box.
    It was the bottom of the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, and the Royals were trailing Detroit, 2-1.
    There were baserunners on first and second and two outs. Detroit manager Jim Leyland summoned Sonora-native and southpaw Phil Coke from the pen.
    “Slider,” said Coke. “That’s what I was thinking.”
    Coke can toss petroleum to the plate when required. But Coke’s viciously-vile slider is his trademark.
    The left-handed Moustakas took a stab at Coke’s second delivery and hit a meek flyout to centerfield.
    Inning over, threat averted.
    Coke got credit for a hold, Detroit won the contest 2-1 and remained 1 1/2 games behind American League Central-leading Cleveland.
    Fast forward to Friday night.
    Bottom of the eighth. Detroit leads Kansas City, 5-4.
    Cleveland has already lost to Toronto. A Tiger win and Detroit moves to within a half-game of first place. That’s a big deal in Tiger-town. Detroit hasn’t won a division title in 23 years.
    Leyland brings in Coke to start the inning. The Royals Eric Hosmer manages to get some wood on a Coke delivery — but not all that much. Hosmer hits a lazy fly to left field. One out.
    Royal slugger Jeff Francoeur, who leads Kansas City in home runs and RBIs, then reaches first on an infield single.
    Up steps Moustakas.
    Coke goes slider, Moustakas takes it for a ball.
    With a 1-0 count, the former Sonora Wildcat hurls another slider, this one clocked at 86 mph, and Moustakas swings and misses.
    “Then I wanted to slow things up just a tad on him,” said Coke. “I wanted to try and mess him up with a slight speed change.”
    Coke tosses an 83 mph slider and Moustakas swings. His bat catches a lot of air, but no part of the baseball.
    With a 1-2 count, Coke hurls an 86 mph slider and Moustakas whiffs again.
    Strike three, two outs.
    The next batter, Royals’ catcher Brayan Pena, takes two pitches for balls. Meanwhile, over at first base, Francoeur has been giving away hints about swiping second. Francoeur had stolen 15 bases in 18 attempts this year — his 15 successful thefts good for second amongst all Royals.
       “So my catcher, Alex Avilla, walks out to the mound,” said Coke, “and he says to me, ‘Dude, if this runner goes, I’m gonna nail him. So go right after this guy, right now.’ ”
    Coke lets fly a 95 mph heater. Francoeur takes off for second base.
    “And then,” said Coke, “I see Alex pop up from his stance, make the throw and I ducked down. I turn around and see him throw out Francoeur by four feet. I was thinking, ‘Dang, I didn’t know you’d throw him out by that much.’ ”
    Three outs, inning over.
    Coke earns another hold as Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde finishes up Kansas City in the ninth.
    On Sunday, Detroit defeated the Royals, 2-1, and took over first place heading into the all-star break.
    “Our team morale is really good right now,” said Coke. “We’re feeling great that we took over first place right at the break. It’s interesting how, in Detroit, you’re playing for the pride of the whole state. In California, regional pride is split up. You have the Dodgers, San Francisco, San Diego, Anaheim and Oakland. In Detroit, everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves. One at-bat goes wrong and they’ll let you hear about it. There’s a lot of pressure and I like it that way.”
    After helping the New York Yankees win a 2009 World Series title as their left-handed relief specialist, Coke was picked up by Detroit in a December trade.
    At the time, Leyland had said Coke could be used in a variety of ways: long relief, short relief, starter or closer.
    In 2010, Coke pitched in 74 games total (one start), which placed him No. 6 all-time in single-season appearances in Detroit Tiger history. In 2011, Coke has started 14 contests, relieved in five more and has set a new career-high in single-season innings pitched (79.1). He has struck out 43 batters, walked 30 and yielded 43 earned runs.
    Coke is spending this all-star break in Detroit.
    “This is a good time to put my feet up and chill out for a few days,” he said. “I’ll do some barbecue and watch TV. There’s a whole lot of sleeping in order. Then it’s back to business at 7 p.m. on Thursday with a practice and then we get right back into it with Chicago on Friday.”
    The Tigers (49-43) host division-foe Chicago (44-48) for a three-game series.
    “Chicago is a perennial power,” said Coke. “And, truthfully, this entire division doesn’t have any rollover. Cleveland (47-42) is young, but they’ve been playing some pretty good baseball. You can’t ever count out Minnesota — never mind their current record (41-48). As long as they have (manager Ron) Gardenhire, they’ll always be clawing at you. And Kansas City (37-54) is a tough, tough squad to play against — they are a good baseball team. We’re all just beating up on each other. It makes things crazy, but fun.
    “It’s a great race for this division title. It’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of. This is what baseball is all about.”

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