DETROIT -- Lost amid a 29-pitch ninth inning and bases-loaded walk that led to Tigers closer Joe Nathan's exit with two outs Friday night was the out that finally finished the inning. It was Phil Coke's strikeout of Twins leadoff man Danny Santana, and it was the fourth strikeout in as many outings for Coke.
Likewise, lost in the struggles of the Tigers' bullpen in Saturday's 12-9 win against the Twins was the key out Coke managed against Joe Mauer to halt the Twins' seventh-inning threat.
It was the second key situational out in a week for Coke, who is showing signs of finally coming around with his power lefty arsenal after his struggles put his status in Detroit's bullpen into question.
Coke's fastball has been clocked at 95-96 mph for the past couple weeks, but he has recently commanded it better. On Friday, he threw a first-pitch strike with a 94-mph fastball to Santana, then missed with another fastball before recording the strikeout with back-to-back 78 mph breaking balls.
The strikeout pulled Coke out of a bases-loaded jam he inherited from Nathan, partly thanks to a leadoff error from Eugenio Suarez.
Hours later, manager Brad Ausmus called on him with runners at the corners and two outs in an 11-4 game against Mauer. Mauer was 4-for-17 with two home runs against Coke, but both homers came in Coke's rookie year in 2009.
Coke threw back-to-back fastballs, the second of which Mauer popped up to center for the final out of the inning. It left Coke 7-for-7 in stranding baserunners over the past seven days. Three eighth-inning singles, however, broke Coke's run of shutout performances.
Ausmus said the recent difference has been command as well as velocity.
"I think his confidence is a difference as well," Ausmus said. "He's feeling better about his pitches. He's able to make better pitches."
The recent results have shifted Coke's role somewhat. His stretch began when Ausmus brought him in to face David Ortiz last Sunday, reprising a lefty specialist role Coke struggled to fill last season under former manager Jim Leyland.
In need of some pop, Tigers stick with J.D.
DETROIT -- Marcus Thames defined his Tigers tenure as a spot outfield starter for whenever former manager Jim Leyland wanted some pop. J.D. Martinez doesn't have the same degree of power bat, but for the time being, he's seeing a similar role for current manager Brad Ausmus.
With Ausmus searching for run production, Martinez started on Saturday for the third consecutive game and the fourth time in five games this week, his best stretch of playing time since he started three games in Oakland at the end of May. Saturday's start came at the expense of Rajai Davis, who was out of the lineup for a second straight game.
Davis' speed makes him a catalyst in the lineup. Martinez's line-drive power makes him more likely to provide an extra-base hit. Though he hasn't shown as much of the home run power that earned him a call from Triple-A Toledo with 10 April home runs, his seven doubles and three homers account for half of his hits on the year.
"He's swung the bat pretty well," Ausmus said before Saturday's game. "He's gotten some hits. He's dangerous. We've had a little trouble scoring runs. He's got the ability to drive in runs."
For Davis, it marked the first time since April 30-May 2 that he was out of the starting lineup for back-to-back games. He appeared in Friday's loss as a pinch-runner, though he did not stay in the game for the ninth inning, costing Ausmus a bat off the bench when lefty closer Glen Perkins faced Don Kelly in the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead.
Ausmus said Saturday that Davis is fully healthy.
Divided playing time is more like the role Davis was expected to fill when he signed with the Tigers in the offseason. Andy Dirks' back injury in Spring Training shifted Davis into more of an everyday role.
With Dirks potentially closing in on a Minor League rehab assignment by the end of next week, his return could leave the Tigers with some decisions to make, both with Martinez's status on the roster and Davis' playing time against right-handed pitchers.
Former Tiger Fien finds home with Twins
DETROIT -- Four years ago, Casey Fien was a reliever without a home, bouncing from the Tigers to the Red Sox to the Blue Jays and then back to Detroit within a three-week span of Spring Training. He made just two appearances in Detroit that 2010 regular season, and 11 for his two-year Tiger tenure.
Ironic, then, that as the Tigers struggle to find depth in their bullpen, Fien has found a home in Minnesota setting up for Glen Perkins.
Fien said he found a comfort level with his own arsenal in Minnesota that he couldn't figure out amid a power-heavy bullpen in Detroit.
"I think I struggled to try to fit in with some of the guys over there, and I went away from what I do best," Fien said on Friday. "I tried to figure out what they do best and tried to be one of them. Baseball's so different from an individual standpoint, and I just started doing what I do. From there on, it just took off."
Fien, then in his mid-20s, gave up 13 earned runs on 17 hits over 14 innings in Detroit from 2009-10. He entered Saturday having allowing 42 earned runs on 96 hits with 126 strikeouts over 125 1/3 innings as a Twin, good for a 3.02 ERA in 138 appearances since 2012. His success has picked up this season, as he has held opponents to seven runs on 20 hits over 28 1/3 innings with 21 strikeouts.
Fien left the Tigers as a Minor League free agent in 2010, four years after Detroit drafted him in the 20th round.
• Ausmus said assistant hitting coach Darnell Coles has been working with a group of Tigers hitters on bunting in recent days. The list includes Andrew Romine, who struggled to put down sacrifice bunts when he was the regular shortstop but put down a well-placed drag bunt for a single on Friday night.
• One American League talent evaluator who has watched Nathan since the last homestand indicated he has lost all semblance of his fastball command, and it's affecting his other pitches. He believes Nathan can get his command back, though he might need to improvise with other pitches to give himself a better chance.