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Sidearm stopper: How Calvin Coker helped stabilize Auburn bullpen
Calvin Coker:
Calvin Coker: "I guess I haven't really expected to throw that much, but now that I'm there, I expect to throw every day when I show up to the field." Photo: Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics
April 13, 2018

By Greg Ostendorf

AUBURN, Ala. -- Outside of maybe Casey Mize, Calvin Coker is arguably the most recognizable pitcher on the Auburn staff.

The senior doesn't throw 95 miles per hour. He's not going to be taken in the first round of the draft, though he did pass up an opportunity to pursue a professional career last June to return to Auburn. But between his quirky sidearm delivery and his long hair, it's easy to spot the 6-foot-3, 174-pound righty when he's on the mound pitching for the Tigers.

Plus, with injuries to both Andrew Mitchell and Cody Greenhill, Coker has become an invaluable commodity for Auburn this season. Entering the week, he's 3-1 with a team-high six saves and leads the Tigers with 18 appearances.

Four years ago? He never would have dreamed that any of this was possible.

"In the moment, it's not surreal to think about it because I know what I'm capable of," Coker said. "But if you would've told me my senior year in high school that `Hey, in two or three years, you're going to be a sidearm pitcher and you're going to be pitching in the SEC in front of 7,000 people,' I would've said you're crazy. I wouldn't have believed you."

Coker grew up in San Francisco before moving to Texas with his father in the 7th grade. While in the Lone Star State, he still remembers going to University of Texas baseball games all the time and being awestruck with the crowd and the environment. That was the dream.

The only problem for Coker was that in high school, he was just another right-handed pitcher who could hit 88 miles per hour throwing over the top. He had a couple decent secondary pitches, but nothing that made him stand out. So instead of pitching for Texas or another big school, he received a scholarship to pitch for Ranger College -- 120 miles west of Dallas.

"In high school, you have maybe 100 people at the games if you're lucky," Coker said. "Then you get to junior college, and you kind of take two steps backward with the fans. So you're pitching in front of 10 people maybe at Ranger."

It was that stint at Ranger, though, that changed Coker's career path. His coach sat him down as a freshman and told him that if he wanted to help the team and make an impact, he was going to have to change something. So he had the young pitcher, who had only ever thrown over the top, drop down his arm slot on the delivery and throw it sidearm.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Coker said. "I was gripping four-seam, just throwing as hard as I could. Not driving off my back leg at all. Just falling down the mound throwing it."

Coker hit 82 miles per hour in that first-ever bullpen session. But it was different when he debuted the new throwing motion in a game.

"I got in there and I wanted to throw strikes, so I slowed it down a little bit," he said. "I was like 78, maybe. I was basically just serving it up in there. But I was getting ground balls. Not many people could hit it. Not many people were squaring it up. It's insane to know that you can throw 78 from that angle, and it's going to be effective."

Pretty soon, Coker got a call from Auburn.

At the time, he had no idea where Auburn was or even what conference the school was in. But after a visit to the Plains and meeting with head coach Butch Thompson, he knew that's where he wanted to go. Other offers would follow, most notably from Kentucky and Missouri, but he had to let them all down easy because he was set on becoming a Tiger.

A month ago, in what was Auburn's first SEC game of the season against Texas A&M, the Tigers were leading 4-1 in the 8th inning thanks to another masterful performance from Mize. However, after the second batter reached base on an error, the coaches called on Coker to come in and get the final five outs to secure the win.

This was the type of moment that he dreamed of when he used to go to games with his dad. The crowd noise, the adrenaline -- this was why he chose Auburn.

Though he gave up a single in that 8th inning, Coker got out of the jam and pitched a clean frame in the 9th to earn the save. It's not been that smooth in every game he's pitched this season, especially considering the number of appearances he's made this season, but it's hard to imagine the Tigers jumping out to a 19-1 start this season without him.

"I guess I haven't really expected to throw that much, but now that I'm there, I expect to throw every day when I show up to the field," Coker said.

Fortunately, with the return of Mitchell and Greenhill last week, Coker won't have to throw every day. If anything, his role will likely diminish. But the senior will still be counted on for critical innings over the next two months as Auburn pushes toward the postseason.

"I think he's a great example to others of just battling and persevering and doing anything he can for his ball club," Thompson said. "I'm so thankful he decided to come back because we've really needed him to this point in the season.

"Hopefully, getting Mitchell and Greenhill back, they can help him and get him a little freshened up here in the next few weeks. But I think he's going to be huge for us if we can get going again and keep battling through this. I think once he gets freshened up, he's going to really have a great stretch run for us on the mound.

"He's done everything that we've asked him to do and more so far this season."

Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for Follow him on Twitter:



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