Correia carving his niche as Pirates' pitching ace
Saturday, May 14, 2011

MILWAUKEE It was late in spring training when the Pirates opted to make right-hander Kevin Correia the first pitcher in their starting rotation.

"Since that day, he's taken the ball, and he's been the lead dog out there," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's taken ownership of it."

[IMGL][/IMGL]There's a big difference between getting the top job and pitching like a staff ace. Correia, 30, has lived up to the task, winning five of his first eight starts.

Correia (5-3) will make his next start Sunday against the Milwaukee Brewers, bidding to become the first free-agent pitcher for the Pirates to win more than five games in a season since Jeff Suppan (10) and Jeff D'Amico (nine) in 2003.

When Correia became a free agent last winter, he searched for a team that would let him pitch at the front end of the starting rotation.

"We told him we probably had the luxury of entertaining that opportunity here," Hurdle recalled with a chuckle.

James McDonald already had been slotted for the back of the rotation. No one knew what to expect from Charlie Morton after his struggles in 2010. Ross Ohlendorf figured to be in the middle. That left spots at the top for veteran Paul Maholm and whoever the Pirates could bring in.

The team made contact with Correia early in the offseason, and he was receptive.

"Pittsburgh is such a great sports town," Correia said. "I think (the Pirates) are on the verge of turning it around. It's going to be fun to be on a team that is transitioning from a young team that's just trying to figure it out to a good, competitive baseball team."

Hurdle, who managed Colorado from April 2000 until May 2009, was familiar with Correia but hadn't seen him pitch of late.

"I talked to some people who I trust, as far as evaluation (skills)," Hurdle said. "What they saw was special and significant. He seemed to be growing into his role. You hear that left-handers can pop late sometimes. Well, sometimes that happens for right-handed pitchers."

Correia broke into the majors with San Francisco but never made much impact. He had a breakout year in 2009 with San Diego, going 12-11 with a 3.91 ERA after injuries on the Padres' staff pushed him toward the top of the rotation.

"I liked the way it felt to be the guy who was going to go out there and get you a win when you needed one and helping the young guys out," Correia said.

He has filled the same role just as well with the Pirates.

"When he gets the ball," Hurdle said, "he's trying to show the rest of the guys, 'Here's the way we need to pitch.' "