Phil Coke has been too important to the Tigers not to be important anymore.

So all signs the lefty reliever can be a major contributor this season are welcome -- even if they're just early signs, as they've been so far.

Coke threw his first live batting practice on Wednesday.

For some established pitchers, the first such session is taken in stride. Throw your pitches, take a deep breath, move on.

Coke doesn't operate that way. Whatever his stride may be, it's unique.

Remember, he's the guy who charges in from the bullpen for every appearance. Jim Leyland always spoke of someday being run over by Coke.

"There I'll be, lying flat," Leyland would say.

We're not talking about that sort of stride, though.

We're talking about taking in stride the challenge of simply facing hitters, even if they're your own teammates, as you approach a season needing a comeback.

After going 0-5 with a 5.40 ERA last year, "comeback" is the correct word to describe it, isn't it, Phil?

Apparently not.

"I wouldn't look at it that way," said Coke. "I'm looking at it more as the need for a season in which I would do what I typically do."

As opposed to?

"Some fluke season in which I was telling everyone what was coming. It didn't matter how good of a pitch I made last year, or how bad of a pitch, it got clobbered."

Indeed it did.