Yes, it was Phil Coke on the mound in the top of the 9th of the clinching ALCS game. With one big point, Phil Coke the one with the 4.00 ERA during the season, the one who graded out as barely above a replacement player, with the dominant final two-thirds of an inning to send the Tigers to the World Series.
He didn’t have to be good then — the Tigers were up 8-1 — but he was. And a day earlier in Game 3 with the Tigers up 2-1, it wasn’t some All-Star pitcher or a dominant reliever that had built the trust of a manager and fans, but Phil Coke throwing a nasty slider to Raul Ibanez, the man who had become the world’s bestest clutch hitter the world had ever seen … in the world to save the game.
Phil Coke is your closer. While that led to the greatest glove spike of all time, it feels weird. For the most part, the Tigers were built by Free Agency and trades. A collection of semi-misses combined with a couple home runs (mmm punny), made up the squad, but by and large this was a team full of stars.
Verlander, Fister, Sanchez and Scherzer did what they’re all supposed to do. Cabrera and Fielder were good enough. But like just about every team ever, the smaller guys provided the extra two percent. Coke was the third piece in a trade, an afterthought, a chance for some comedic relief in exchange for watching him blow a game. He turned in a near-MVP performance.
Delmon Young, considered a semi-miss or full blown miss depending on what part of the season he was in and which person you talked to, grew a bitchin’ mustache, stopped committing hate crimes and won the MVP.
Don “Designated for Assignment” Kelly scored in the eighth inning of tie Game 2 of the ALDS and won the game in the most Don Kelly way imaginable, with a walkoff sacrifice fly.
Avisail Garcia, a highly touted prospect but one that had little time at the Major League level, became Mini Miggy in about a week.
James Mungro Memorial Award Runner-Up Quintin Berry played in seven of the team’s nine games.
Other players could have been put in some of those spots. A portion of them probably would’ve performed better. But they weren’t there. Coke and Young and Kelly and Garcia and Berry were.
And no matter what happens in the next round, they’ll be the rough edges that make up the uniqueness of this team. After a while Verlander’s and Fielder’s and Cabrera’s (OK maybe not Cabrera’s because he won the triple crown) year will blur together with their other spectacular years.
For Coke and Young and everyone else, this may be it. They could be gone after this season, or have ultimately forgettable years the rest of their careers. Even if Garcia goes on to become a big star we’ll remember this year as the one that saw him burst onto the scene.
When we look back on this year, sure we’ll remember Verlander putting the team on his back in Game 5 of the ALCS. We’ll remember Prince Fielder vigorously waving his teammates off for the final out of the ALCS and then standing there stunned, waiting a moment for everything to sink in before finding Omar Infante (another Hustler that will define this year) and setting off the celebration.
But those are moments better suited for championship DVDs. As of right now, the glove slam will be the first thing that comes to mind when someone utters the words: Tigers and 2012 World Series in the same sentence. Years from know when you’re talking with your buddies about the 2012 Tigers, it will be the year Delmon Young went nuts in the playoffs or the year with Quintin Berry, just like 2006 was the crazy year with Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, the weird Kenny Rodgers pine tar thing, and Tigers pitchers not being able to field.
There’s still a long way to go in this season and a lot more time for something to truly define it, but like always, special years are distinguished by a team’s least special players.