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Coke bottles up drama with nasty curveball

Coke bottles up drama with nasty curveball

Coke bottles up drama with nasty curveball
DETROIT -- This was a moment manager Jim Leyland had to keep in mind that Justin Verlander is human. The Tigers ace's velocity might increase with his pitch count, and he might be willing to keep throwing gas until the life runs out of his arm, but this is about reaching the World Series.

The Tigers need Verlander primed for that ultimate stage.

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As the Yankees kept fouling off pitches, and Verlander's clock ticked past 130 tosses, Leyland was forced to make a critical decision in Detroit's 2-1 victory over New York in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night. Each step he took toward the mound pushed the contest closer to uncertainty.

"Normally, I guess you don't take Secretariat out in the final furlong," Leyland said. "But that was pretty much it for him."

By pulling Verlander from the game at 132 pitches, Leyland needed to navigate through another ninth inning without closer Jose Valverde, who is in the midst of a much-needed break. Lefty Phil Coke stepped up as the Tigers' fill-in closer during Game 2 in the Bronx, and he was again handed the ball on Tuesday.

bringing the heat
Justin Verlander threw 132 pitches over 8 1/3 innings in Game 3, but his average fastball velocity peaked in the ninth.
1st inning: 94.4
2nd inning: 94.3
3rd inning: 95.2
4th inning: 94.8
5th inning: 94.6
6th inning: 95.1
7th inning: 96.2
8th inning: 97.4
9th inning: 98.0

Verlander watched nervously from Detroit's dugout, pacing back and forth as New York threatened to erase all his work to that point. Finally, with runners on first and second and two outs, Coke snapped off a 3-2 curveball that dove under the bat of Raul Ibanez, and Comerica Park was instantly overcome with a raucous roar.

"It may have been the best curveball he has thrown all year," Leyland said.

It all sounds so simple in the end, but this was a moment in time -- and a decision by Leyland -- that might be retold over generations by Tigers fans, especially if Detroit ends this magical run with a World Series triumph.

"Remember the time Phil Coke was our closer?"

In the wake of Valverde's back-to-back implosions between the AL Division Series and ALCS, Leyland implemented a closer-by-committee situation. So far, that committee has consisted of only Coke, though the lefty will be unavailable if a save situation arises during Game 4 on Wednesday.

Leyland would not commit to Valverde reprising his role, if a save is again required.

"I will play it by ear," Leyland said. "We have a bunch of guys down there. And, you know, I have so much respect for him, because one of the happiest faces in the clubhouse after the game and pumping the guys up was Valverde. That's what the team is all about."

In Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Coke breezed through two innings to save a 3-0 win for the Tigers. In Game 3 in Motown, the left-hander ran into a bit of trouble, but he was able to preserve the win for Verlander and the Tigers, who boast a 3-0 edge in the series.

Coke had just two saves in 114 regular-season appearances between the 2011 and '12 seasons. Now, he is only the second Detroit pitcher ever to have a save in consecutive postseason games. Todd Jones also accomplished the feat in 2006.

"He's been pitching well for us these last couple games," Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry said. "We can't ask for anything more."

Maybe they could ask for a little less drama next time.

In the ninth, after Verlander notched his 23rd straight shutout inning of this postseason, Yankees shortstop Eduardo Nunez engaged in an epic battle with the hard-throwing ace. The at-bat lasted nine pitches, including six foul balls, and ended with a low line drive that sailed over the wall in left for a leadoff home run.

That trimmed Detroit's lead to 2-1, and prompted Leyland's first mound visit of the inning.

"Nunez put up one of his best at-bats, given the situation, I have ever seen," Verlander said. "Especially with me on the mound. And then [Leyland] comes out there and I was hoping he wasn't going to take me out.

"He comes out and asks if I can get one more out for him. I said, 'Absolutely.'"

Brett Gardner followed with an eight-pitch clash that came to a close with a groundout back to Verlander on his 132nd pitch. With lefty Ichiro Suzuki due up for the Yankees, Leyland felt the time had come to turn to Coke. Right-handed setup man Joaquin Beniot was also warming up in Detroit's bullpen.

Coke made his signature sprint from the 'pen to the hill, unaware of the length of his leash.

"I didn't know how long I was going to be out there," Coke said. "I didn't know if it was for one or two guys. I didn't know if it was until the last out was made. It didn't matter, because I was going to give everything I had no matter what. That's the way I approach it."

The lefty reliever answered the call by inducing a groundout to second base.

Then, Mark Teixeira singled up the middle, and Robinson Cano snapped out of an 0-for-29 funk with a base hit to left.

That led to Ibanez -- this postseason's king of late-inning heroics -- but Coke settled back in, and ended the game with one of his best pitches of the season. There was, however, a moment of doubt as the baseball spun away from his fingertips.

"It came out of my hand and I was like, 'Uh oh. That's a little up,'" Coke said. "And then next thing I knew, [catcher Alex Avila] was laying on it like it was a grenade and I saw [Ibanez] swinging and he came up empty."

With Detroit's horse watching from the side, Coke came up big.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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