February 26, 2011
A Coke and a Start
DUNEDIN—The first step in Phil Coke's transition from reliever to starter could not have gone better Saturday afternoon. In fact, the Tigers left-hander spent more time engaging reporters in an interesting give-and-take following his first start of the Grapefruit League season than he did on the mound.
Coke pitched two scoreless innings in the Tigers' 4-0 victory over the Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. He allowed one hit, did not walk a batter and struck out one.
The Miguel Cabrera drunken driving arrest and subsequent entrance into a substance abuse program as mandated by Major League Baseball has dominated the headlines so far for the Tigers in spring training. However, the switching of Coke's role is an interesting story in its own right.
Coke was considered a starting pitching prospect of some promise while coming up through the Yankees' farm system. However, the 28-year-old has made just one start among his 158 major-league appearances that includes 74 with the Tigers last season after they acquired him in a trade during the 2009-10 offseason.
"Our scouts really liked him as a starter," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He has three pitches and he knows what to do with them."
While Coke may have the pitches to make the conversion into the rotation, the question is whether he is too hyper to wait four days between starts. Coke was noted for his sprints from the bullpen to the mound when he pitched in relief. You also don't have to talk with the colorful southpaw for long to realize his brain runs at a different speed than most, though he jokingly said, "I haven't been diagnosed with anything yet."
"It's a whole different ballgame as a starter and we've talked about it on the (winter fan) caravan and early in spring training," Leyland said. "We'll probably talk again about it before the start of the regular season. I think he'll be fine, though. He'll learn how to separate his emotions as a starter."
Leyland then gave his non-mathematical equation for how a player can best channel his emotions on the field.
"I believe that concentration and relaxation equals confidence," Leyland said. "If you get too wired up, you lose the relaxation and if you relax too much then you lose your concentration. It's like taking a test. If you're all tense and nervous, chances are you're not going to do well. If you are nice and relaxed, you're probably going to get a better grade."
Coke, for his part, knows his role and also understands that controlling his emotions could be a double-edged sword.
"My job now is to go out and pitch as long as possible and try to keep my team in the game instead of being that wild-and-crazy dude coming out of the bullpen," Coke said. "At the same time, though, there is still going to be points in a game where there is going to be an adrenaline dump. I'm going to amp up. It's going to happen. I know I've got to keep under control but I can't stay so far under control that I don't have the adrenaline flowing when I'm really going to need it."