Correia set to prove Bucs' doubters wrong
Opening Day starter has history of exceeding expectations
If there is one person most appropriate to lead a club that insists its potential is externally underrated, Kevin Correia would best be that guy.
The Pirates' Opening Day starter gets what it means to be counted out before the season begins. And he's familiar with being a part of a group that has shed tiny expectations by ignoring the prognosticators and simply taking it into their hands to prove them all wrong.
Correia and his Padres teammates did exactly that last season, showing a 15-game improvement from the year before. Predicted by many to finish last in the National League West, San Diego remained in the playoff picture until the last day of the season.
Correia's days in San Diego are over -- he left this winter after signing a two-year deal with the Pirates. But having seen firsthand how far a team can ride its pitching staff is a lesson not lost on the right-hander as he prepares for what he hopes is a rebound season of his own.
Asked if there is similar potential to surprise -- even to a lesser degree -- in Pittsburgh this season, Correia never hesitated.
"It's real similar," said Correia, who will be opposed by the Cubs' Ryan Dempster in Friday's 2:20 p.m. ET opener at Wrigley Field. "The way we did it last year was with a good young pitching staff that matured quickly. That's what we have to have here. I have some experience. [Paul] Maholm has some experience. The rest of the guys are kind of a younger group. We're going to go as far as our pitching takes us."
Correia, along with Maholm, will be a leader on this pitching staff, which has a bundle of question marks heading into the season. While the Padres finished second in the Majors with a 3.56 ERA last season, the Pirates were at the bottom with a 5.00 ERA. And at a glance, the staff appears mostly the same.
Correia is the only new face in the five-man bunch, though James McDonald did not join the organization until last August. Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf also spent extended periods out of the rotation in 2010 due to struggles and injuries, respectively.
Both have a lot to prove, too, given Morton's 2010 results and Ohlendorf's up-and-down spring.
"I just think ... guys like [McDonald] and Ohlendorf, they showed some real good things last year, just watching from another dugout," Correia said. "The quicker that they mature and realize how good they can be, they'll realize that they can beat that team across from them."
Unlike other National League Central rotations, the Pirates realize this is not one that can be anchored by an ace or two on top. It will have to be a much more collective effort in Pittsburgh, where the Bucs have now had four different Opening Day starters in as many years.
In fact, manager Clint Hurdle recently identified the starting pitchers when asked what the club's biggest challenge would be in 2011.
"I believe they are capable," Hurdle said. "We've encouraged them to piggyback one another. I have not given one moment's thought to anyone else's rotation or anybody else's strength of their club or their bench. We'll prepare for St. Louis when it's appropriate. We'll prepare for Chicago when it's appropriate. I want to make sure that we know who we are as a group and that we know who we are individually, and that we can find a way to keep our focus on winning the game that night. That's all we've got to do."
For Correia, the opportunity to be the first Pirates pitcher to take the mound in 2011 is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. He's never had the title of Opening Day starter placed next to his name until now, and he understands the importance of setting the tone for the pitchers who follow.
Correia is also looking for a fresh start of his own. He has no desire to forget about 2010, but Correia is certainly ready to move on.
The tragic death of his younger brother last May marked the start of the Correia's inconsistencies. He finished with 10 wins, but also a 5.40 ERA. The right-hander pitched his way out of the rotation by the beginning of September and made just two appearances (both in relief) after Aug. 31.
The results were a far cry from the breakout season Correia had enjoyed one year earlier.
But with an offseason to deal with the personal hardships, Correia said he believes he is in a good place with his new team. He is very much ready to once again have fun. And he is eager to get the season started right.
"I'd trade in an Opening Day start for a good start," Correia said. "If we're going to turn this thing around, it would be nice to win that first game. It's exciting, but you can't get caught up too much in it. You've got to approach it like any other start."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.