Phil Coke spent one offseason working as a chimney sweep in the town of Sonora, nestled in the foothills of Northern California.
Now Coke is mopping up hitters exactly as the Detroit Tigers envisioned he would when they reserved a spot for the left-hander in their starting rotation.
Coke and two relievers combined on a three-hitter, Ryan Raburn hit a two-out RBI double in the seventh inning to break a scoreless tie and the Tigers held on for a 3-0 win over the Oakland Athletics on Thursday night.
"He was impressive," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "His mindset was to be a starter and he's getting into a groove. His demeanor was real good and he seemed much more calm. I think being more regimented helped him."
Primarily a reliever throughout his career, Coke made his first start in the majors late in the 2010 season and was impressive enough to earn a spot in the Tigers' rotation this year. Because of the schedule, Coke opened the year in Detroit's bullpen when Leyland worked with a four-man rotation, but he's been solid ever since.
Coke (1-2) allowed only one Oakland runner past first base and retired 16 of the final 18 batters he faced. Joaquin Benoit pitched the eighth and Jose Valverde worked the ninth for his third save in as many chances.
"It's remembering how to do it," Coke said. "I was staying focused on what my job is, getting out there and getting it done. I wasn't thinking about anything except to see the glove and hit it."
Coke grew up in Sonora, a tiny town some 2½ hours east of Oakland. Several friends and family were in attendance Thursday, including his former boss from when Coke was a chimney sweep.
They saw Coke earn his first win since July 26, 2009.
It was a welcomed performance for the Tigers, who were stymied by Oakland starter Gonzalez for six innings before scoring three times against the A's bullpen.
"Early on we were going pitch for pitch," Coke said. "That's cool. 'You and me, let's go nine.'"
Ramon Santiago had two hits and drove in a run on a sacrifice fly in the eighth for Detroit. Leyland now needs one win to become the 19th manager in major league history to reach 1,500 for his career.
The Tigers managed only four hits, matching their season low, but held on behind Coke's second straight solid start after he opened the year in the bullpen. Coke pitched seven shutout innings and struck out two for his first victory of the season.
Conor Jackson singled twice for the A's, who were shut out for the first time this year.
"You could tell we were a little beat up today, a little tired," Gonzalez said. "When I was in the sixth inning, my arm was dropping a little bit. Detroit's a good lineup and it shows."
The Tigers, who won their previous two games on walkoff hits, couldn't get anything going against Gonzalez but broke through after he departed.
Santiago greeted reliever Tyson Ross (1-1) with a sharp single to center and was sacrificed to second. After Casper Wells flew out to right, Raburn doubled hard off the wall in right-center. Santiago, who also singled in the fifth, scored easily.
That was all Coke (1-2) and Detroit's bullpen needed to slow down the surging A's.
Gonzalez gave up just two hits and extended his scoreless streak to 17 consecutive innings, but struggled with his control most of the game and matched his career high with six walks. Gonzalez also threw two wild pitches.
A 15-game winner for Oakland in 2010, Gonzalez still lowered his ERA to a stellar 0.47 before giving way to Ross in the seventh.
After giving up Raburn's RBI double in the seventh, Ross walked the first two batters in the eighth. Jeremy Blevins replaced Ross and promptly walked Brandon Inge to load the bases, then fell behind 3-0 to Santiago.
Two pitches later, Santiago hit a sacrifice fly to left to score Jhonny Peralta. Oakland left fielder Josh Willingham threw to third base but no one was covering and the ball skipped into the A's dugout. Brennan Boesch, who was at second, was awarded two bases and scored to make it 3-0.
Overall, A's pitchers combined to issue a season-high 11 walks.
Notes: The A's got good news on two of their key relievers. Closer Andrew Bailey (forearm strain) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session without a setback while RHP Michael Wuertz (hamstring) felt fine after pitching a simulated inning. Both pitchers are on the disabled list but there is no word on when either might return. ... Detroit recalled RHP Al Alburquerque from Toledo (IL), filling the roster spot vacated when RHP Robbie Weinhardt was optioned to the Mud Hens following Wednesday's win against Texas. ... Tigers RHP Ryan Perry, out since April 5 due to an infected eye, will begin a rehab assignment with Toledo on Friday. .. Detroit will play seven more games in Oakland this season, its most since 1969. ... Oakland 2B Mark Ellis was awarded a triple for a ball he hit against Minnesota on April that was originally ruled an error. .. The A's are 1-4 in series-opening games this season.