Former Cal Poly standout and current Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Kevin Correia has always been defined by his ability to focus on the task at hand.
When he was drafted during his junior at Cal Poly, he chose not to leave school early. Instead, he focused on his senior year and put forth one of the best statistical seasons the Mustangs have ever seen.
When he was called up to the majors with San Francisco in 2004, he didn’t get distracted by the big names he was playing against. Instead, he pitched his way to a 3.66 ERA and waited until the season was done to sit back and say, “Man, this is the big leagues.”
And this season, where he’s put forth a 12-win record and the first All-Star selection of his career, that hasn’t changed.
“I think after the season I’ll sit back and reflect and think about how I made my first All-Star team and what kind of experience that was,” Correia said in a phone interview during a recent four-game series in Atlanta. “But right now, I don’t want to have that as a distraction and I am just going to wait until after the season to really let that all set in.”
It’s that mindset that’s led Correia, 30, to be in the position he is in this season — being a key part to the restoration process of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s leading the charge at his perch atop the rotation, with a 12-9 record and a 4.71 ERA.
“I knew this was going to a lot better team than people thought,” Correia said. “In my experience that is the most fun way to play baseball, being the underdog and surprising people. That is kind of what we’ve done this year.”
In recent weeks, the going’s been tough for Correia and the Pirates, but through the first half of this season, he and the team were booming. Correia rode his live arm to become just the fourth Cal Poly player ever to be named to an All-Star team and the first since Ozzie Smith in 1996.Correia was also the first pitcher to win 11 games for the Pirates before the All-Star break since 1980. Unfortunately for Correia, he was one of the few National League pitchers that didn’t get into the All-Star Game in Phoenix.
It followed suit with the way his career had been improving. In his six seasons with San Francisco, Correia failed to grab solid hold of a starting job, making spot starts and also pitching in relief.
That changed when he signed with his hometown team, the San Diego Padres, prior to last season, and became a solid contributor in the Padres’ rotation. He won 12 games in 2010 and pitched a career-high 198 innings. He also had 142 strikeouts and a 3.91 ERA.
He showed glimpses of that Major League potential when he joined the Mustangs after a freshman season at Grossmont College and went 17-10 at Cal Poly from 2000-02. During his senior year, Correia had 99 strikeouts, posted a 4.63 ERA, pitched six complete games and posted the second-highest single-season win total (11) in Cal Poly history.
Former Cal Poly head coach Ritch Price, now the head coach at Kansas, still remembers Correia’s senior season.
“I think he is right up there with the best that has ever played at Cal Poly. His senior year was that special,” said Price, who coached the Mustangs from 1995-2002. “Anybody that has ever wore a Cal Poly jersey was proud of him.”
Correia said baseball wasn’t the main reason he came to Cal Poly.
“I didn’t know a lot about the school and the baseball program coming in, growing up in San Diego and all,” Correia said. “But I liked Cal Poly because I knew I was going to get a good education and I wasn’t really sure if baseball was going to take me to the major leagues.”
Turns out it did, and it did so fast. After the Giants selected Correia in the fourth round of the 2002 MLB Draft, he was called up to the majors in 2003 — becoming the first pitcher in his draft class to do so.
Immediately, Correia drew on his experiences at Cal Poly for guidance. After pitching against former Long Beach State pitchers Jered Weaver — selected in the first round of the 2004 draft, and Abe Alvarez, who was selected in the second round of the 2003 draft — Correia said he learned much more than just how to throw a curveball at Cal Poly.
“I learned a lot there,” Corriea said. “It’s pretty much where I learned how to carry myself. I don’t think I’ve ever had any character trouble, and my character is a lot stronger because I went to Cal Poly.”
Now, that character is rubbing off on fellow pitchers in Pittsburgh’s pitching staff, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said.
“Kevin is an integral part of our rotation,” Searage said. “He brings in a lot of intangibles because of all the experience he’s gained over the years. He is able to transfer that to guys like James McDonald and Charlie Morton and help them in development.”
But that doesn’t mean Correia, himself, is done developing. Over the past couple of years, he’s been able to slowly lower his ERA and chalk up more victories. To Searage, it won’t be long until Correia develops into an elite pitcher like Tim Lincecum or Justin Verlander.
“If there is a crack in the armor, I would think that he just needs a bit of separation in some of his off-speed pitches,” Searage said. “It’s just about honing those things in. I can see it coming together, slowly but surely.
“If I was a betting man, I would say it would happen sooner rather than later.”
Correia, who is expected to start against the Padres in San Diego on Sunday, isn’t concerned about that just yet. Right now he is determined to focus on the task at hand — helping lead the Pirates to a NL Central title, their first playoff berth since 1992 and their first winning season since 1992.
“I really want to get to the playoffs, and we are in an opportunity to do that right now,” Correia said. “I think if I can accomplish that, this will definitely be the most memorable season I’ve played so far.”
And for Corriea, he’ll make sure not to celebrate until it’s all over.