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In any inning, or weather, Coke focuses on own game

In any inning, or weather, Coke focuses on own game

LAKELAND, Fla. -- If there was ever a good day for Phil Coke to say he will focus only on what he can control, Wednesday was it.

On a day with gusty winds and a cloudless sky, where every fly ball at Joker Marchant Stadium became an adventure, Coke got two of his three outs on fly balls that fell. He pointed at Lars Anderson's pop fly for its entire path around first base before it fell in the base path. Because it fell right near first baseman Matt Tuiasosopo, however, Tuiasosopo had enough time to fire to second for a forceout.

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A few pitches later, Coke pointed at Ryan Langerhans' popup as it headed toward foul territory behind third base, then gave up the point as the left-to-right winds carried it back toward short.

"I didn't want to point at that one," Coke said, "because it would've looked like I was having issues."

That one was confusing enough that Anderson rounded second and kept running, right into the rundown at third.

"Compared to where it landed, that's almost 30 feet," Coke shrugged.

He tried to keep his pitches down in the strike zone, he said, but the Blue Jays hit them in the air. He ended up with an odd fielder's choice and two singles, but he still got his scoreless inning.

That led fittingly into his point about the question surrounding Tigers camp these days.

"The controllables," Coke said. "What's controllable? I'm able to control what I'm doing. You go out there when your number's called, and you do what's asked of you, and you get out of the way for the next guy, if there is a next guy. That's what it is. There's no secret."

Coke cannot control what his role is going to be, he said. Nor can most of the guys in the Tigers bullpen. All he can do is try to make pitches and get outs whenever it is his turn.

He has not kept up with the daily updates on rookie closer candidate Bruce Rondon, but he takes exception to the notion that there is panic around Tigertown. He disagrees with the idea that a Tigers bullpen without an established closer is doomed.

"No, I think we have three guys that have done it already," Coke said. "We've got a guy that we're working on to have him do it. And if he doesn't end up being able to do the job, somebody's going to be there to do the job.

"I don't understand why there's a panic button. We're not going to die. We're not all going to die if we don't have a closer. If we go out there and we need to have a guy step into a situation, we will. If it's a closer by committee, it's a closer by committee. If [Rondon's] the closer, he's the closer."

Coke, of course, is one of the three who have closed, along with Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel. He was the Tigers' most recent closer, having saved two of the Tigers' four wins over the Yankees in last fall's ALCS.

Even if Rondon does claim a share of the closer's job, there is a decent chance Coke could get the Tigers' next save opportunity. Detroit opens the season against Minnesota, where left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will most likely loom in the middle of the order.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland said early in camp that he would anticipate Coke getting some save chances during the year, whether Rondon wins the job or not. Just as the lefty-righty matchups dictated Coke facing the middle of the Yankees' lineup in the ninth inning in the ALCS once Jose Valverde was taken out of action for mechanical work, so could Coke conceivably get the chance to face Mauer and Morneau if the game is on the line.

Those are the types of matchups that come into play with a bullpen by committee. Those are the types of decisions Leyland says will be second-guessed if they go with that format, which is why he would rather have a set closer.

Those are the chances that Coke insists will not be a big deal for him.

"I'm not going to sit here and make it one," Coke said. "I'm not that guy. I'm going to be that guy that, 'OK, you're going to have me go out and close the game? Cool.'"

"I'm here to do a job," he added, "and that's whatever they ask me to do."

It's a surprising reaction from somebody who makes a mad dash from the bullpen every time he takes the mound. From the sprint before his first pitch to the slamming of the glove after his last, Coke thrived on the adrenaline of the moment.

Ask him how he can carry that feeling, or that pitching, over to this year, and he does not have an answer. Ask him how a lefty reliever who struggled badly against right-handed hitters for most of the year -- they hit .396 off him during the regular season -- can get key outs from the right side down the stretch, and he says he does not know how it worked out.

"I would love to pick up where I left off, but it never goes that way," he said. "You can't script it. It's already been done in some fashion, and it's just our job to go out there and play the game."

His point is, and his other outings back it up, that he gets that same adrenaline in a seventh-inning jam with the tying runner on. That does not mean he believes any reliever can close a game, that the ninth inning is the same as the seventh. He just believes the Tigers have guys who can approach it that way.

"You have to be ready for whatever you're handed," Coke said. "It doesn't matter, the duration of the outing or the inning that you begin. It has everything to do with being as confident in the fifth inning as you would be in the ninth inning, and going out and making your pitches."

He made pitches Wednesday and watched them become an adventure. He could miss pitches on Opening Day and watch Mauer or Morneau pop it up. Could be the seventh inning, could be the ninth.

They will control what they can control.

"We're not out there thinking about who's going to do what," he said. "We're going out there thinking about handling our business when the opportunity's given."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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