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Tiger Coke finishes first half sizzling

Sonora native Phil Coke, shown in 2011 action when he blanked host Oakland for seven innings, finished off the first half of this 2012 season in sizzling style. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
Kansas City Royals left-handed slugger Mike Moustakas stepped into the batter’s box on Saturday night in Detroit.

This was the top of the seventh inning, two outs and Kansas City was trailing Detroit 6-4. With a runner on first, Moustakas — who has blasted 15 home runs this year with 47 RBIs — was the tying run.

Detroit Tigers skipper Jim Leyland brought in from the bullpen southpaw and Sonora-native Phil Coke.

“My strategy for this at-bat was very simple — get him out,” said Coke. “No agenda, nothing specific in my head — get him out. That’s all. It was time to take care of business.”

Coke’s business, in baseball parlance, is putting out fires. And for the past month, for Coke, business is booming.

In his past 12 appearances — dating back to June 12 — Coke has tossed 12 2/3 innings, struck out 13, yielded just three walks, earned five holds, one save, and boasts a magnificent ERA of 0.71.

For Coke’s first delivery to Moustakas, trusted catcher Alex Avilla called for a curve.

Moustakas swung and his bat caught air. Strike One.

“Then,” said Coke, “Alex wanted, pretty much, the same pitch. I just made sure I kept this second pitch down and away.”

Moustakas took a vicious cut at Coke’s 82 MPH curve and, again, bat missed ball.

“It was interesting that Moustakas thought he’d be hitting that particular pitch to the moon and back,” said Coke. “I do respect him. He’s a young kid (23), highly-touted, and he’s scrappy.”

With the count 0-and-2, Coke tossed another curve, which Moustakas managed to foul off.

Then came ... another curve?

Well, that’s what Moustakas was thinking.

Instead, Coke let fly a 94 MPH four-seam bullet.

Moustakas froze.

“I just made sure to catch the outside of the plate,” said Coke. “And then Moustakas let it go by.”

For Strike Three.

Inning over. Threat over. Ultimately, Detroit went on to win this contest and Coke was credited with a hold.

On Sunday, Coke pitched a perfect inning of relief, Detroit won again — its fifth consecutive win — and the Tigers moved to within 3 1/2 games of AL Central-leading Chicago at the All-Star break.

After obtaining Prince Fielder in the offseason, Detroit was favored to win its division. At one point this season, Detroit was six games back in the standings. However the Tigers surged back and have won 19 of their last 30 contests.

“Honestly, the morale in our clubhouse all season has been good,” said Coke. “With the talent we have and the competitive nature we have on our ballclub, it was just a matter of time before we got things going in the right direction. So, overall, we’re not upset about where we’re at right now.”

This year, Coke, like each of his three previous MLB seasons, ranks amongst the league leaders in games pitched and holds. He is currently tied for seventh in appearances (40) and fifth in holds (15). Coke (3.16 ERA) has struck out 35 batters in 37 innings worked.

“I can’t complain at all about my role,” said Coke. “I’m very happy that Mr. Leyland continues to show confidence in me by giving me the ball.”

Another point of happiness for Coke was the play of the Sonora Wildcats this past spring.

“I was in constant contact with Karson Canaday (second baseman/pitcher, class of 2012) and I was being updated all the time,” said Coke. “This team did a heck of a job in getting Sonora to a place it hadn’t been to in many years.”

Sonora finished runner-up in the 2012 Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships.

“Hats off to all the kids on this Wildcats team,” said Coke. “I know what it’s like to get so close to achieving a goal but coming up just a tad short. That happened to me last season in the ALCS when we lost to Texas in a tough series. But this year’s Sonora Wildcats almost brought home a section title.

“They made me proud, that’s for sure.”

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