The One Who Got Away?

The big match-up last Monday — or so everyone thought — was in Colorado, as Tim Lincecum and the reigning world champs took on the Rockies. The Rockies have been surging, compiling the best record in baseball in the early going, and dominating teams with a combination of great pitching and out-of-this-world hitting. The team leader, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, has been the man of the hour, with a veritable gaggle of commenters campaigning for him as the 2011 MVP. But the Rockies couldn’t stand up against the Giants. The game was all Lincecum: in truth, the spindly righty’s outing on Monday night seemed almost predictable — a no-hitter through six, and a 7.2 inning three hit gem.

But if you watched Lincecum spin his magic against the Rockies, you missed Kevin Correia weigh in with one of the best pitching performances of the year. It would have been easy to miss; there were only 12,000 on hand in Cincinnati to watch the Reds take on the Ahoys, with former Friar Kevin Correia on the mound for the Bucs. The result was a gem: Correia pitched nine innings of four hit baseball, dominating the Reds with pitches that dove down in the strike zone. Correia threw 109 pitches, 73 of them for strikes, putting the Bucs back at .500. That was last Monday. Since then, the Bucs have dropped three straight to the Marlins — the result of a collapsed starting staff in which Correia has been the only steady presence.

Kevin Correia is the one who got away — a starting veteran arm that few wanted, but who was signed by the Stargells in the off-season as a kind of act of desperation. But since coming to the Pirates as a free agent, he’s been one of the genuine pitching sensations of the National League. Maybe “sensation” is the wrong word: Correia is a 30-year-old San Diego native with “okay” stuff who struggled with the Giants before becoming usable with the Padres. Prior to the 2009 season, Correia “tweaked” his delivery, registering a 12-11 record and a 3.91 ERA. He became the center of San Diego’s starting rotation for the team’s surprising 2010 season, but he wasn’t good enough for the Padres to show off-season interest. He signed a deal with Pittsburgh on an $8 million two year contract.

No one was particularly impressed with this, least of all Pirates fans. The oohing and ahhing that is supposed to accompany these kinds of signings was even less evident when Correia was named the Pirates’ Opening Day starter. “Id say this is more of a combination of a few other circumstances as well as a testament to how bad this starting rotation is right now,” Raise The Jolly Roger noted. But the Pirates may have found what they’ve always needed: a lights-out starter with experience and savvy. On Opening Day in Chicago, Correia gave the Pirates a solid six inning, seven hit performance: not great, but good enough to win. He was even better in his next outing, in St. Louis, where he shut down the Redbirds in a seven inning five hit outing. They couldn’t touch him.

This seems right: Correia is one of those guys who sloughs along for years, pitching as best he can, until one day . . . a kind of Rick Sutcliffe, or maybe Tony Cloninger — the kind who toil away until one day (and for no particular reason at all), it just all comes together. Correia is now 3-1 for the Bucs (with a 2.48 ERA), and the sole anchor of an in-the-tank rotation. And for MLB General Managers, he might be this year’s one who got away: a pitcher everyone took a pass on except for the desperate no-account Pirates, who got him for a song. The Nationals face Jeff Karstens today in Pittsburgh, but will probably draw Correia tomorrow.

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