October 14th, 2011
Not surprisingly, Phil Coke was going crazy in the bullpen while the Tigers were rallying ahead in the sixth inning. He had a good view when Delmon Young’s home run completed the natural cycle and put the Tigers up 6-2. He wasn’t thinking about the ninth inning at that point, or the eighth for that matter, or whenever he would have to close.
When he did, he thought back to Tampa Bay.
The one save Coke recorded this year was a two-inning, 51-pitch marathon Aug. 23 at Tropicana Field that required him to finish off the Rays once the Tigers took the lead in the seventh. The headline was Brad Penny outpitching David Price, but Coke was the finishing act, stranding the tying run at third and winning run at second with a Ben Zobrist groundout.
When he got the call Thursday once another Nelson Cruz home run whittled Detroit’s lead to 7-4, that Rays save was his most recent experience. It helped balance the nerves a little.
“Yeah, it played out in my mind right after I got told I was going to close the game, when I went out for batting practice,” Coke said. “I was like, OK, I can do that. I’ve done it. I know what it’s going to take. Let’s do it. I wasn’t really nervous or anything.”
That was key. Of course, he didn’t have any cause for nerves until two hits and a walk turned the final out of his five-out save into a chore, with the potential tying run on base and Mike Napoli at bat.
“I have a personal history of overthinking things and getting myself into trouble,” Coke said. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be the reason why we were packing up and going home. I wasn’t OK with it.”
He stayed aggressive with Napoli, and ended up with the ground ball he needed to finish off the Rangers and send the ALCS back to Texas for Game 6.
He was close to nerves, but not quite there.
“If I had walked Napoli, it probably would’ve been a different story,” Coke said. But at the same time, I wasn’t giving in. I didn’t care who had the bat in their hand. I wasn’t giving in. I mean, I was doing everything I could, and I wanted to have something to do in forcing this to another game. I don’t want to go home yet. I’m not ready to go home yet.”
Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont wants a World Series ring. He still has an opportunity to win it this year after they pulled out Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, and he tried to grab the bag that helped save that chance for him.
“I tried to get the base after the game,” Lamont said, “but it had a camera in it.”
Whether it had any luck left in it after the Tigers milked some out of it is unknown.
“Sometimes you need a little luck,” Lamont said with a smile. “Sometimes a lot of luck.”
Lamont makes his living at third base, even if he doesn’t make plays there. It’s his job to judge balls all over the field and decide whether that runner heading in from first or second has a chance to score on it. He has had an active and much-discussed series at that, from his decision to hold Ramon Santiago at third base in Game 2 as the potential winning run to his choice to send Miguel Cabrera on Delmon Young’s eighth-inning fly ball in Game 4.
All in all, Lamont has proven to be a pretty good judge, especially on balls headed past third base and into left field. But he had no way of anticipating what was going to happen once Miguel Cabrera’s ground ball in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game headed that way.
He saw Rangers Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre playing the line and getting in front of the ball, behind the bag, ready to start a double play. He saw Beltre put his glove up at what ended up as thin air and look behind him in bewilderment.
He saw Ryan Raburn charging for third while the ball was still bouncing around the left-field corner, making his job easy — Raburn waved in, Tigers pulled ahead.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. He has seen plenty of balls hit the bag over his years coaching there, but very few react like that.
“It happens,” Lamont said, “not very often. Just lucky it hit kind of the front [of the bag] and skipped up. If it just hit on the top, he would’ve probably caught it.”
He figures the topspin helped determine the hop. To him, though, that was the first break. The second lucky bounce was the way the ball rolled into the corner, strong enough to get there yet not quickly enough for left fielder David Murphy to have a play at the plate.
“When it went down there, I could see it go into the corner and it kicked,” Lamont said. “It was slow. That’s what happens sometimes. This one took a long time to get there. That makes a difference.
“It was hit hard enough that it got down in the corner. It could’ve just stopped. If it had done that, he would’ve run straight for it.”
It took a little negotiation from higher powers. Eventually, manager Jim Leyland ended up with it.
“I have that bag in my office right now,” Leyland said. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point in my life, I can promise you.”
For now, it’s going to stay in the clubhouse.
“You know, it put us to Game 6,” Lamont said. “[It’s] not for me, for the team. Between that and Victor [Martinez] hitting the triple standing on there, it’s quite a bag.”