Phil Coke, fighting the worst control problems of his career, needs to accept the fact that Toledo is the place to settle things down and rediscover himself. (Tom Hagerty, Flickr)
Here’s to the summer rites of passage in Michigan. Trips to the beach. Grilling outside. Vacations up north. Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland refusing to talk to the media after a series of embarrassing meltdowns.
This time, one of his players was partially complicit in the act, as well. Phil Coke’s antics, while costly only once on the scoreboard in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox, were tougher to watch than ever. The lefty, fighting control issues all season, was all over the place again, loading the bases entirely via walk after giving up a home run to the second batter he faced. Finally, Coke wasn’t allowed to pitch around his latest self-inflicted catastrophe, getting removed to a chorus of boos.
Afterward, he justly faced the media shooting gallery. Coke managed only slightly to admit he was struggling, saying he was “in a funk.” As a result, Coke was then humbly asked by a member of the press if he might need time with the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s Triple A affiliate, to work through some issues. Coke, a proud veteran, didn’t enjoy the conversation taking that unexpected turn.
“Coke did not appreciate the question, which was pretty much communicated by a 30-second stare as hot as an incendiary bomb.”
Of course it was. Coke’s kooky attitude has helped him forge an identity which has aided him in the bullpen when times are good. It’s also provided him a cult following in Detroit as a fan favorite, but in this instance, it could prove to be his downfall. It makes sense that the pitcher arrogant enough to point skyward at every long fly ball (even those leaving the yard) would also be too proud to work on his game in Toledo with a bunch of kids. It’s beneath him to even answer such a question or consider the suggestion.
This is the man so many wanted to open the season as full-time closer? At least Todd Jones would admit when he stunk and take full accountability for his constant mechanical issues.
After yesterday’s performance, and so many subsequent others in 2013 where Coke has looked unable to locate home plate even with a Garmin, compass rose or astrolabe, Coke should have been volunteering himself to make the ride down I-75 if he was the great teammate everyone assumes him to be. At this point, if hanging around Detroit’s clubhouse and working with Jeff Jones isn’t helping to iron out the persistent issues, what other choice does he logistically have? Things won’t get better on their own.
Instead of treating any time spent in Toledo as some sort of demotion, Coke should head across the locker room and talk to Max Scherzer. In 2010, unable to locate his pitches, Scherzer worked extensively with the Mud Hens and found a fix during his “demotion” period. His very next game, he fanned 14 Oakland Athletics and hasn’t looked back since, en-route to finding the formula which has helped him threaten Roger Clemens for the first 14-0 start by a pitcher since 1986. Scherzer would probably admit that time spent in Toledo did him good both mechanically and mentally, allowing him to clear his head and get back to the basics.
Even Jose Valverde, the Tigers’ much maligned former closer, has recently gone to Toledo attempting to rediscover any semblance of his missing mojo. In Valverde’s case, it’s a feeble attempt at a comeback to stave off certain retirement, but credit him for making professional sacrifices in the hopes of finding personal success. Remember, Valverde wasn’t exactly chopped liver until last season. He was elite, going 49-49 in save opportunities during the 2011 year. There’s plenty of places he’d likely rather be than Toledo, Ohio, but at least Valverde accepts the path sometimes has to go through small cities with players half his age.
Like anyone with a problem, the first step for Coke must now be admission. The next is action. Clearly, he knows things aren’t right, but his pride is preventing him from realizing it enough to take meaningful steps to solve his issues. If Coke managed to work in Toledo for a few weeks, find a fix and pitch as well as he did in the playoffs last season, nobody would remember July’s issues in September.
Until Coke is willing to make his own choice to sacrifice time in the major leagues, though, he cannot blame the fans or media for thinking him to be most arrogant, least dependable member of the Tigers’ bullpen.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax