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Outside Pittsburgh, the name Kevin Correia doesn’t mean much. If you’re a baseball fan you know he’s the ace of an up-and-coming pitching staff.

In fact, this is the latest the Pirates have been above .500 (49-44) in nearly two decades, and they’re chasing St. Louis and Milwaukee in the National League Central.

A once-proud franchise that last won a World Series title in 1979, Pittsburgh has been this summer’s biggest surprise, and the 30-year-old Correia has been a central figure.

“When I first came up I was more concerned, like a lot of guys are, with just trying to do well enough to stay around,’’ he said recently. “It’s hard to worry about the team as a whole when you’re trying to just get by.”

The big right-hander (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) from La Mesa, is 11-7 with a 4.04 earned-run average after getting a no-decision in last Sunday’s 7-5 extra-inning win over host Houston. Correia went six innings with five hits, three runs (earned), four strikeouts and one walk.

Correia lost his starting job with San Diego late last season when his ERA swelled. Correia finished 10-10 and had a 5.40 ERA.

Under the watchful eye of Pittsburgh Manager Clint Hurdle, Correia has blossomed, became an All-Star for the first time, and invites hitters to make contact.

“I’m not going out there to try to strike everybody out and only go five innings,’’ he reasoned. “If I have to challenge guys a little more and end up giving up maybe one or two runs and we still have a comfortable lead, if that’s going to get me three more innings and save the bullpen, it’s more of a what’s good for the team mentality.”

Correia, a free agent after last season, can throw hard, but isn’t going to overpower hitters like Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw or the Giants’ Tim Lincecum.

“I’m more concerned with staying out there as long as possible,’’ Correia said. “I’ve found that the longer you stay in the game, the more games you’re going to win and the better it is for the team. I’d rather go seven innings and give up three runs than go five and not give up a hit.”

Correia added: “I’ll throw a ball in there and if they hit it, they hit it. If I was more concerned with my numbers, I might nibble a little more.”

What Correia and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux do is keep batters off balance. If they’re looking fastball, Correia will let loose a curve. Keep an eye peeled for the breaking ball, and then Correia will sneak the heater by.

In 2003, Correia’s rookie season, he started seven games and went 3-1 with a 3.66 ERA.

Then he started only 39 games over the next five seasons and went 11-21, while posting skyrocketing ERA’s like 8.05 in 2004 and 6.05 in 2008.

For whatever reason, Correia, drafted in 2002 by San Francisco in the fourth round, has fared better on the road. So far, he’s won nine games away from PNC Park. In those outings, Correia has worked at least six innings, including a complete-game victory at Cincinnati on April 18 when he allowed four hits with five strikeouts.

Correia’s next win will be a dozen, which he accomplished in 2009 (12-11). The fans in Pittsburgh have waited a long time to see a winning product, and Correia would like nothing better than bringing those hearty fans a pennant.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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