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Coke fends off Rangers with clutch effort

Coke fends off Rangers with clutch effort

Coke fends off Rangers with clutch effort
DETROIT -- Phil Coke was a man alone, surrounded by 41,908 restless people.

In the top of the ninth inning, the bull's-eye Detroit manager Jim Leyland had painted on the reliever prior to Game 5 of the American League Championship Series became incandescent.

The Texas Rangers were not going quietly. With two outs, Josh Hamilton had doubled, Michael Young had singled him home, Adrian Beltre had walked and powerful Mike Napoli stepped to the plate representing the potential go-ahead run.

Nelson Cruz represented potential apocalypse on-deck.

There was nobody behind Coke, a left-handed reliever who went 3-9 during the season. This was Leyland's grand design, by necessity, for Game 5: Justin Verlander, as long as he can, then the left-hander with the 4.47 ERA.

"That's just the way it had to be today," Leyland said.

"That was a little different, getting a heads-up before the game that because [Jose] Valverde and [Joaquin] Benoit had thrown too much, it would be Justin and me," Coke said. "That was the plan, and knowing before was weird.

"I'm used to waiting for the phone to ring, then the heart starts racing."

Oh, plenty hearts hit the blocks after Coke had retired the first four men he faced, including the last two in the eighth.

Coke started Napoli off with a ball. The shadow of Cruz, who had finished Verlander's night with an eighth-inning two-run homer, grew.

"I didn't care. It would've been a risk, and it sounds weird, but I wanted to face him," Coke said. "I was ready for him if I had to face him."

Napoli disappointed the left-hander by poking a 1-and-0 pitch hard but just slightly to the right of second baseman Ramon Santiago, who turned it into the force play that ended the 7-5 victory.

That wasn't a wind gust blowing across Comerica Park at the last out -- it was 41,908 people exhaling.

"I'm glad my name was thrown out there and they had confidence in me that I could put my best foot forward and make it happen," Coke said.

Due to the stressful circumstances, the 29-year-old Southern Californian shared pitching props with Verlander -- who had thrown 112 more pitches, most of them at a much higher speed.

"Cokie came through for us today," Leyland said. "A little different situation for him obviously [closing out a game], but he was up to the challenge."

Verlander himself called it "a great job against an outstanding lineup."

"Gets in a little bit of a jam there in the ninth against the meat of the order, and it seems like that's what most closers tend to do," Verlander said. "He was able to [nail it down]. What a great job he did."

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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