It wasn’t too long ago that Phil Coke was one or two bad starts away from possibly being sent down to Single-A Tampa.
He was 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in the month of April, and the Eastern League was hitting at a .340 clip off of him. In 26 innings of work during the first month of the season, he allowed 18 earned runs.
Over the next three months, he allowed just fifteen.
His velocity started slowly creeping up from the 88-89 MPH readings he was posting at the start of the year. With that, the strikeouts started coming in bunches. Over his final three months with the Thunder, he posted four double-digit strikeout games before eventually being converted to a reliever shortly after the infamous trade, no-trade debacle.
At the end of July, Coke was summoned to Scranton. He was a much different pitcher than he was when everyone saw him in April, now pitching with more confidence and a fastball that touched 94.
After a largely successful month in Triple-A in which he put together a string of 11 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run, he got the call to go to the big leagues, adding a chapter to an unpredictable story that you wouldn’t have believed if you saw him pitch over the first few weeks of the year.
In the span of five months, he went from a player in danger of being exiled to Tampa to a guy who hasn’t allowed a run in eight big league appearances…
I was able to catch up with Coke in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse before the game on Monday night — and if you know him at all, you know he’s always very willing to talk. Here’s how the conversation went…
Mike Ashmore: What has the whole experience up here been like?
Phil Coke: “Amazing, absolutely amazing. Every day, I’m just in awe of the way the season has gone and the opportunities I’ve been given to prove myself at each level. And then to have the opportunity to come up here and prove myself here, its just been a dream come true. I’m just in awe of it every day.”
Ashmore: You weren’t necessarily on a lot of the prospect lists, and there were a lot of people who probably didn’t expect you to get up here, at least not this quickly. Was getting up here a goal that you had set for yourself at the beginning of the year, or is this something that not even you expected?
Coke: “Of course it’s everybody’s goal to get to the big leagues, however you’ve got to get there. Whether it’s through a role change like I did, or it’s through sheer luck or having somebody at this level go down…for me to be up here at this time of year and contributing when I’ve been able to contribute, it’s really huge for me. More on a personal level, because I’ve put in the time and I’ve put in the effort and I feel like I’m being rewarded for it. I really see myself as being extremely fortunate, and I’m just glad things happened the way they happened.”
Ashmore: Is it a little bittersweet to be up here in a sense? Trenton went on to win a championship, and you were on that team. Same thing with Scranton. I know you’re happy to be where you’re at, but…
Coke: “It’s always difficult to leave a team, just because you make friendships with everybody on the team. For me to have been really close with everybody in both clubhouses, it’s been difficult. But at the same time, it was a stepping stone, and you have to be able to put certain things behind you. Sometimes, that’s one of them. Unfortunately, that’s how this game works. You’ve always got to be looking at the future and looking at tomorrow, so that’s what I really try and do for me personally. Yeah, it was difficult, but at the same time I’m beyond happy for both teams. They put in the time, they put in the effort, and they got themselves the best pat on the back that you can get in this game, which is winning a championship and showing everybody that you are as good as you set out to be at the beginning of the season.”
Ashmore: You’ve been getting some ink lately, considering the impressive start you’ve gotten out to — you haven’t allowed a run in your first seven big league outings. Did you expect to do as well as you have up here?
Coke: “You always aspire to do as well as you can. As I said, I’ve been fortunate and have guys in the right spots. I threw a fastball down and away to (Akinori) Iwamura down in Tampa, and it was elevated and he got good wood on it. But he hit it right at A-Rod. If A-Rod’s not playing there, you never know. Obviously hits happen, but the fact that he was standing there and got a great hop and turned and made a perfect throw and got me the out in that situation…you’ve got a guy like myself with adrenalin just raging through my body and I’m just trying to throw strikes. When you’ve got guys like A-Rod and Jeter and Cano and Giambi in your infield, and then you’ve got Damon, Nady and Abreu in the outfield and Pudge or Molina behind the dish, you know that you are just the tiniest part of the big picture, but you’re in the picture. So for me to go out there and do what I’ve done, having the incredible defense out there has made it that much easier to just go out there and concentrate on throwing strikes. It’s kind of hard to put it in any other words than that.”
Ashmore: With so many guys for so few spots, do you kind of view this opportunity as kind of an audition to start 2009 in the Yankees bullpen or have you not really thought about it that way?
Coke: “That’s an interesting question. I just view it as an opportunity to be here today and make sure that I do what I have to do and to be able to contribute to this team moving on, and just getting better every day, however I have to do that. I said earlier this year, that if they were going to call me up — which I’d be surprised by — I’d go swing a set of purple pom-poms and wave them in the end of the dugout, but they don’t let the bullpen guys sit in the dugout unless they’re in the game. So, no I didn’t go buy any.”
Ashmore: You do have the pink backpack though… (Note: I’d assume Humberto Sanchez may have taken over the responsibilities, but as the least experienced member of the bullpen at the time, Coke was in charge of carrying the seeds, gum, and other snacks for the rest of the relievers. He was given a bright pink backpack with a Yankees logo on it to do so.)
Coke: “And don’t get me wrong man, it’s supposed to be a rookie deal, but I’m absolutely appreciative of it. I love the fact that they’re willing to put some sort of trust in me, regardless of whether it’s pink or any other color, to make sure that we have seeds and stuff like that out there in the bullpen. It’s like they’re handing me responsibility rather than kind of like a rookie hazing, that’s how I view it.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com