Consistent Correia vital to rotation

Consistent Correia vital to rotation

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Aug. 14, 2007, could forever remain the night that changed Kevin Correia's destiny as a Giant.

Correia was the Giants' starter against the Atlanta Braves, but that didn't mean he was a starting pitcher. Having relieved in his 99 previous appearances, he received the assignment because San Francisco's pitching staff was fried from a stretch of 15 games in 14 days, including a doubleheader the night before.

But the 4 1/3 shutout innings Correia threw made him look like a starting pitcher. And he fit the part more and more with each successive outing.

Now the Giants need Correia to be a fully legitimate starter. Noah Lowry, the team's leading winner in two of the past three seasons, is expected to miss at least April after undergoing forearm surgery, which ostensibly erodes the club's plan to rely on the rotation. Correia, formerly the leading candidate for the rotation's No. 5 spot, will be counted on for consistency in a more central role.

"I want the team to feel like when I go out there, we have a good chance of winning that game," Correia said Saturday before the Giants tied the Los Angeles Angels, 6-6. Referring to his rotation mates -- former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito and promising right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum -- Correia added, "We have a lot of guys who are No. 1s on this team. If I can pitch as well as these guys, I don't think there's a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 on this team. I think we're all really good pitchers. I want to be one of the better pitchers in the league, not on the team."

Correia's Cactus League performances have provided encouragement. After pitching three one-hit shutout innings against Texas last Monday, he allowed one run and two hits in four innings Friday against Oakland. "I'm as confident in my pitching as I've ever been in my career," Correia said.

His assurance also stems from his finish last year, when he went 3-1 with a 2.54 ERA and a .222 opponents' batting average in eight starts.

"I don't see any reason why I can't continue that into this year," Correia said. "The sky's the limit, I think."

Correia, 27, began soaring in that Braves game. He allowed just four hits, including a fourth-inning double by Brian McCann that fell after Barry Bonds simply stopped pursuing the ball. The right-hander threw 45 strikes in 66 pitches and left with a 3-0 lead before the Giants ultimately lost, 5-4.

Correia started 19 games from 2003-05 but never pitched quite well enough to establish himself in the rotation. Asked if he thought the Atlanta game represented his last shot to start, he said, "I didn't even know if it was a shot. I kind of took it as, I'll go out there and see if I can get a few innings for the team that day. I didn't know if I could go more than one or two innings. But right when I got out there, I felt more comfortable. The role wasn't an odd thing to me, even though I hadn't done it for a couple of years."

Correia relieved twice following the Atlanta game and joined the rotation full-time after Russ Ortiz injured his elbow Aug. 20 at Florida. Sustaining his excellence, Correia allowed two runs or fewer in every start until his final outing, when he surrendered five runs in six innings Sept. 28 at Los Angeles. He won his first three starts after replacing Ortiz, establishing the basis for the Giants' 6-2 record in his starts.

"My main focus was to throw strikes early [in the count] and try to get quick outs so I could get some innings in there," said Correia, who has begun mixing his curveball more liberally with his fastball-slider-changeup combination. "That attitude really worked for me, rather than in the past, when I would have tried to get a few more strikeouts and overpower some people."

This represented a significant turnaround for Correia, who previously was 5-5 with a 5.26 ERA as a starter. He enjoyed instant success as a rookie in 2003, going 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA in seven starts, but he was bolstered by a talented Giants team that won 100 games that season.

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"At first, he thought he was a big leaguer because he had a good arm and he won a bunch of games when we had a heck of a team," pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "He could go four or five innings and throw a hundred pitches and get by."

Correia divided time between Triple-A Fresno and the Giants -- and as a starter and reliever with both teams -- during the following two seasons. A bruised right shoulder late in the 2005 season halted his progress as a starter. But spending all of 2006 in the bullpen, where he remained for the first 4 1/2 months of the 2007 season, might have primed Correia for a return to the rotation.

"There's little or no room for error in the bullpen. You're aggressively going after guys, but you're smart about it," said Lowry, Correia's offseason throwing partner in the San Diego area. "If you take that pitch-to-pitch mentality into starting, I really think it helps your approach to the game."

Correia clearly prefers approaching the game from the first inning onward.

"It feels like more of the game is in your hands from the first pitch," Correia said. "I didn't know if I was ever going to get another opportunity to start, but that's what I always maintained I wanted to do and should be doing. Hopefully it'll work out this time."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.