Two days before Opening Night of the 2015 season, a friend from Detroit texted me: “Did I see Phil Coke on Cubs’ roster? Oh, man…he will turn your hair gray!”
In the interest of journalistic integrity, it should be noted that this friend has a rather limited number of follicles atop his head, so they might not be the best gauge. It should be noted further that this friend’s hair loss occurred in the BC (Before Coke) era, and thus does not appear to have any connection whatsoever to Phil Coke’s time on the mound in Detroit.
So take my friend’s grim forecast with a grain of salt (and pepper). But, to be frank, my friend has good reason for his doubts.
The Cubs picked up the 32-year-old lefty reliever off the virtual scrap heap, signing him in the spring as a non-roster invitee. His spring training performance, in which he did not surrender a run in 7 2/3 innings of work, earned him an unlikely spot on the Cubs Opening Day roster. The team signed him to a one-year $2.25 million contract.
The eight-year MLB veteran’s career has been marked by ups and downs. He got his first – and to date only – World Series ring in 2009, his 2nd year in the majors, as a Yankee, but then was traded to the Tigers in the offseason as part of a three-team trade that sent Curtis Granderson to The Pinstripes.
Coke got off to a strong start in Detroit, finishing 2010 with a 3.76 ERA (his career best to date) with 17 holds and 2 saves in 21 hold/save situations. The following season, the Tigers moved Coke from the bullpen to the fifth spot in the starting rotation, a move that proved to be a failure. After only half a season during which Coke recorded a 1-8 record, the team moved him back to the bullpen. He finished 2011 with a 3–9 record and a 4.47 ERA.
In 2012, Coke posted a 4.00 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP, but saved his best work for the postseason. Pressed into duty as the team’s closer on October 14, 2012 after regular season closer José Valverde faltered, Coke saved the final three games for the Tigers in the 2012 ALCS against the Yanks. In the 2012 World Series, Coke gave up only one run in 3 1/3 innings pitched but that one run, which came in the top of the 10th inning of Game 4, proved the game and series winner for the World Champion San Francisco Giants. Despite the bad ending, it was a near-heroic effort for Coke, who finished the 2012 postseason allowing one run in 10 2⁄3 innings (0.84 ERA) and striking out 13 batters.
Coke didn’t seem to recover from that World Series loss as he struggled throughout the 2013 season and saw his ERA balloon to a career-high 5.40. Late that season, the Tigers demoted him to their Triple-A farm club in Toledo.
Coke made a decent comeback in 2014, posting a solid 5-2 record and 3.88 ERA in 62 relief appearances for the Tigers, but the team didn’t resign him and he became a free agent in the offseason.
When all other teams passed on him, the Cubs, looking for a southpaw to bolster the bullpen, took a low-risk chance on Coke by signing him to a minor league deal. Coke credited reworked mechanics for his spring success that turned into a spot on the major league roster.
“It’s been a phenomenal experience for me,” Coke told Cubs’ Insider, Carrie Muskat, after getting word that he’d made the team.
Coke’s spring success carried over into the first five appearances of the early big league season, during which he surrendered only a single run in 3 2/3 innings for an impressive 2.45 ERA. But then in his sixth appearance of the young season, against the Padres, he entered in the 9th inning with the Cubs leading 6-2 and gave up back-to-back singles without recording an out. He was removed for closer Hector Rondon who had even more trouble. When the inning was over, the score was tied and Coke’s ERA had ballooned to 7.36.
So is Coke the real thing? The early results on Coke are decidedly mixed but so far not so bad as to cause ones hair to turn gray or to fall out.