DETROIT -- It was just one inning, but Phil Coke's relief appearance was one of the bright sides of Saturday's loss for Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Leyland wants to get his lefty reliever on a roll. To hear him say it, he has to.
"He's important for us; if we're going to be good, he's going to have to be good," Leyland said. "At the end of the day, in the grand scheme of things, he's going to have to be good for us. He's a key component."
He does not mean just against left-handed hitters.
"I don't care if they're ambidextrous," Leyland said. "I don't care how they hit."
The three batters Coke retired in Saturday's eighth inning were two left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter. He got away with a pitch to Justin Morneau, who flied out to center, before getting switch-hitter Chris Colabello and lefty Chris Parmelee to strike out on offspeed pitches -- Colabello on a changeup, Parmelee on the slider.
The latter has subtly been a different pitch for Coke. He is throwing fewer sliders now (23.5 percent, according to fangraphs.com) than last season (37.1 percent), and he is throwing it a few miles per hour slower. He is throwing it for a higher strike percentage, according to STATS, but getting fewer swings and misses.
"I think he has to complete the mission," Leyland said Saturday before the outing. "I think he throws two good ones, and then he'll throw one that's not so good."
Coke's splits, meanwhile, are starting to drop, small sample size as it is. After a miserable 2012 season against right-handed hitters (.396 average, three home runs in 101 at-bats) and a rougher start this year, Coke has tempered the numbers a bit, allowing opponents a 10-for-29 performance with four doubles and a home run from the right side.
Left-handed hitters, meanwhile, are 3-for-19 with a double, three walks and seven strikeouts against him.
Pena's role shifting, if not expanding
DETROIT -- The Tigers signed Brayan Pena to ease some of the wear and tear on Alex Avila and give Detroit a viable right-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers.
On Saturday, the switch-hitting Pena started against a right-handed starter for the second time in four days. Add in his start against Minnesota lefty Scott Diamond on Thursday, and Pena started three of Detroit's previous four games before Avila returned to the starting lineup Sunday against Twins righty Mike Pelfrey.
Against the two right-handers, Pena had two three-hit games.
Pena, manager Jim Leyland said, "has done a very good job settling in the backup role."
The starter-backup format, however, is a little skewed at the moment. Meanwhile, the mix of starts Leyland talked about doing with Pena and Avila seems to be taking shape.
"I'm trying to have a little bit of one [day] on, one [day] off just to see if we can get [Avila] going a little bit," Leyland said.
Leyland tried something similar in 2008, when Ivan Rodriguez was slumping. When it began, Pudge was batting .245 in early June. By mid-July, Rodriguez had raised his average to .295. Of course, the Tigers traded him at the Trade Deadline later that month, in part because he was unhappy with playing time.
Any change would more likely be in a timeshare like the Tigers have going right now. The goal of the timeshare so far, though, has been to try to get Avila out of his nearly season-long slump by reducing the wear and tear.
It would not be a surprise at all if the timeshare continued for a while. Remember, Leyland mixed Avila and Gerald Laird behind the plate for a good chunk of the summer. If Avila gets going and Pena is still hitting, it is easier to maintain.
Oddly enough, the years when Pena had the most playing time in Kansas City were the years when he had lesser production. The years when Pena caught 60 to 65 games were his best seasons.
Pena's goal is to keep himself ready for whatever Leyland wants out of him.
"It's one of those [situations] where I've got the opportunity to go out and play, and the fact that I don't want to let the skipper down and I don't want to let my team down," Pena said. "I just have to go out there and grind. I never take anything for granted, just continue to work and continue to improve."
Tigers to honor veterans, active military on field
DETROIT -- The Tigers will help remember the sacrifice and contributions of veterans on Memorial Day by wearing special camouflage design home jerseys for Monday's 1:08 p.m. ET game against the Pirates at Comerica Park.
Members of the Armed Forces will be honored on the field for their service prior to the national anthem. David Van Allen of the Disabled American Veterans will throw out a ceremonial first pitch to represent veterans, and Colonel David Brooks from Selfridge Air National Guard Base will do the same in honor of active service members.
All service members and veterans in the on-field ceremony will receive a patriotic Tigers T-shirt.
The Tigers will donate 1,500 tickets to local veterans and members of the Armed Forces to attend the game with their families.
The camouflage-design jerseys are part of Major League Baseball's program to recognize veterans, active military and military families. The jerseys will be sold online, with all net proceeds donated to Welcome Back Veterans.