DETROIT — Based on their history against each other, no one in the Tigers bullpen made more sense to pitch to David Ortiz in eighth inning Sunday night than lefthander Phil Coke.
They had faced each other 20 times, and Ortiz was just 2 for 18 against Coke with four strikeouts.
Coke didn’t have an explanation for how he’d managed to muzzle Ortiz. His approach was to simply, “close your eyes and let it go,” he said. “And pray.”
But with the Tigers trying to make a four-run lead stand up with two outs and the bases loaded, there were many variables in play.
Coke, who rejoined the Tigers after being sidelined with an inflamed elbow, hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18.
Even though Coke’s postseason track record spoke for itself (in 10 playoff appearances in 2012, he allowed just one run on six hits with 13 strikeouts ), Tigers manager Jim Leyland wanted to careful.
“I’d like to get him out there in not such a huge pressure situation after being away for so long,” Leyland said. “I’d like it to be maybe in the sixth inning with a lead, or if you’re behind a couple of runs, get his feet wet.”
Even for Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, who instead came in to give up the game-shifting grand slam in the Red Sox’s 6-5 win, the scenario was imposing. But, despite the result, Coke said Leyland made the right decision.
“[Benoit’s] been really, really good, and I’m sure nobody can really argue that, since he took over the closer role, and the fact that he’s been as dominant as he has been thus far in the postseason — I mean there’s hiccups here and there — but he’s been the most consistent guy in the ’pen,” Coke said. “So I don’t have any issues or questions for Skip on why he went with Benoit because he’s proven himself to be able to handle it.
“As a ballplayer, as a spectator of the game, and somebody that loves the game, I understand why he was in the game at that moment.”
Still, after throwing just 38⅓ innings (his fewest ever in a full season) and finishing with a 5.40 ERA (the highest of his career), the 31-year-old reliever is itching for a chance to make up for a trying regular season.
“I want to pitch every day,” he said. “I know that’s no secret. I know everybody knows that I want to be in the game, and I want to do everything I can to get the job done. I didn’t really have a phenomenal season this year and that’s all the more reason for me to want to get in these games and show that I’m not really just a one-hit wonder and that I really know what I’m doing. I have something to prove.”
Coke has appeared in 21 postseason games and won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009. But finding the right moment for Coke to take the mound again will be tricky with the ALCS knotted at one game apiece. But whether it’s against Ortiz, or anyone else in the Sox lineup, is irrelevant to Coke.
“I expect to get the ball when it’s given to me. No other time,” he said. “I haven’t thought of it any other way. Why would I change now?”
Hunter serves thanks
The sight of Boston police officer Steve Horgan reaching for the sky in celebration and Torii Hunter flipping over the bullpen fence in futility chasing down Ortiz’s game-tying grand slam is easily the most memorable image of the Red Sox’ Game 2 win Sunday night.
Even Hunter was able to laugh about it Monday when he spoke to reporters at Comerica Park, poking fun at the situation, as well as Horgan.
“It shows a good effort,” Hunter said. “You can make it whatever you want. You can say, ‘Aw, look at the Tigers, face down, feet up.’
“The cop’s supposed to be protect and serve — this son of a gun got his hands up. I better not ever see him again. Help me, then cheer, fool.”
Hunter was sore, he said, and intended to spend the off day getting treatment, but he expects to play in Game 3 Tuesday afternoon.
As comical as Horgan’s enthusiasm might have been, Hunter was appreciative of the pitchers in the Red Sox bullpen who were immediately concerned, waving for trainers to come tend to the 17-year veteran.
“That says a lot,” Hunter said. “All those guys came over to check on me in the bullpen. I wanted to say thank you for that. I saw [Ryan] Dempster and everything and he was trying to wake me up. I think somebody smacked me, trying to wake me up, and just held me down so I wouldn’t move.
“I didn’t know if anything was broken or whatever. You can hear Ryan Dempster and a couple of the other guys say, ‘Dude, that was a great effort. Are you all right?’ So I thank the Red Sox bullpen for coming over to check on me. That was a great moment.
“They put that aside and tried to take care of human life — unlike the cop,” Hunter joked. “Terrible. Protect and serve, take that off his badge.”
How he’s hurt them
Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino has been hit by a pitch five times so far in the playoffs to go with the 18 times he was plunked in the regular season, and from the vantage point of Tigers ace Justin Verlander, some of those incidents weren’t the pitcher’s fault.
“I’ve seen some pitches that he got hit on that were strikes,” Verlander said. “So, I mean, I don’t think you can worry about that. I think just whoever is the home plate umpire needs to be aware that he’s up there.”
In August, Victorino, normally a switch-hitter, started hitting exclusively from the right side. In the last two months of the season he was hit 15 times.
Verlander said sometimes it appears as if Victorino’s eating pitches on purpose.
“Anything on the inner half occasionally he’s looking to get hit,” Verlander said. “He’s up there, he’s right on top of the plate. And his arms are over the batter’s box and over part of the plate. If he doesn’t get out of the way, there could be an occasion that it could be a strike and it actually hits him.”
Victorino was dotted in the first inning of Game 2 by Max Scherzer by a first-pitch fastball that was well out of the zone, but Verlander said the umpires will have to keep an eye on Victorino hovering over the plate.
“That’s something that I think that those guys are aware of,” Verlander said. “But you can’t think about not hitting a guy. You’ve got to think about executing your pitches and not changing anything because of that. And hopefully, if something like that happens, those guys are on top of it.”
Dirks to take field
Andy Dirks will get the start in left field Tuesday and Jhonny Peralta will play short. Dirks hit .353 (6 for 17) against the Sox this season with a homer, a triple, and two RBIs. The triple was off Game 3 starter John Lackey, against whom Dirks went 2 for 5 in two games this season . . . Even though Austin Jackson and Hunter are both 1 for 10 at the top of the lineup, Leyland says he has no intention of tinkering with things. “Those guys have been good all year for us and I think we just have to continue to go that way and hope they come out of it. I think they’re both trying a little too hard.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.