Baseball: It just kind of sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
The Detroit Tigers were left for dead by some when they fell three games back in September. Earlier in the year, comparisons were more often made to the disappointing team of 2008 than to the A.L. champions of 2006.
Oh how a few games in September and October can remake and repair a reputation fast.
Miguel Cabrera earned the first Triple Crown in 45 years and is almost certainly the A.L.'s MVP winner. Justin Verlander quite possibly repeated as the A.L.'s Cy Young Award winner. With a 2-1 victory over the Yankees Tuesday, the Tigers are a win from returning to the World Series -- their second Fall Classic in six years after averaging decades between all other appearances.
A few kept the faith and saw this coming, but most did not. Now. we're all going to be talking about "2012" for a long, long time.
Phil Coke, too, is enjoying a rehabilitated reputation. Of all the pitchers who saw routine use in the Tigers' bullpen, he might have been the worst in 2012. With a 4.00 ERA, a 1.65 WHIP and 12 inherited runners allowed to score, Coke left a bad taste in the mouth. He was able to successfully get left-handers out, but he struggled all season to get right-handers out.
So, naturally, after Tigers closer Jose Valverde blew a two-run lead in Game 4 of the ALDS and a four-run lead in Game 1 of the ALCS, the manager surveyed his bullpen looking for just the right pitcher to get the job done, and his eyes settle on ...
Not the setup man, Joaquin Benoit. Not the veteran, Octavio Dotel. Not the flamethrowing righty, Al Alburquerque. Not the rookie, Drew Smyly, who'd picked up a postseason win the day before.
But Phil Coke. Who else?
Coke pitched two scoreless innings to get the save Sunday, locking down Detroit's 3-0 victory. Tuesday, he was tasked with getting just two outs.
He didn't blow the doors off. He actually gave up back-to-back hits with two outs on the board. In all, you would not grade it as the most aesthetic of relief appearances.
But he reared back against Raul Ibanez on a 3-2 count, and fired a slider. Ibanez bit, the ball set the hook and the game ended.
"I threw it as hard as I could, and he swung as hard as he could, and luckily, didn't hit it," Coke said.
Phil Coke: Postseason closer.
Hey, he's up to 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason. Why not?
Of course, the discussion would be incomplete without talk about Delmon Young. Ridiculed by pretty much every fan base he's represented, Young has carved out his own special reputation in Detroit. He swings at anything. He makes frustrating outs. He squandered the opportunity to rack up RBI hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. A .267 average and .707 OPS is just not what you expect out of your designated hitter.
But in the postseason for Detroit, few have been better. Young opened the scoring Tuesday with a home run -- his seventh postseason home run with the Tigers and his second HR of this ALCS. That's more postseason home runs than any player in Tigers history has ever had .
And it's not just a couple of home runs: He's batting .308 in the ALCS. That's an average any Yankees batter would sell their grandmother for, and it's better than what most of the Tigers are doing, too. You can't dispute that Fielder is the better batter over the course of a season -- but right now, when every game counts, Young's the one getting the job done in the middle of the batting order.
You can talk about sample sizes, you can talk about a 162-game regular season mattering more than a handful of postseason games. All of that is great.
But history remember what happens in October. It's when reputations are made.
The Detroit Tigers, Phil Coke, Delmon Young, none of them had regular seasons to remember, but they closed out the season well, and they've been equally impressive in the postseason.
This team snuck up on me. But it's growing on me fast.