It was, perhaps, the easiest prediction anyone could make for 2011 in all professional sports: The Pirates' starting pitching would be better.
Well, of course it would be better.
The starters in 2010 finished last in Major League Baseball with a 34-84 record, a 5.28 ERA, 540 strikeouts, an average duration of 5 1/3 innings, a .297 opponents' batting average and just about everything else. Individually, no starter won more than Paul Maholm's nine games, and the trio of Charlie Morton, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens combined for six wins over 57 starts.
Game: Pirates vs. Cubs, 2:20 p.m., Wrigley Field, Chicago.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM 104.7.
Pitching: RHP Kevin Correia (6-4, 3.84) vs. LHP Doug Davis (0-2, 8.31).
Key matchup: Kosuke Fukudome is 5 for 16 in his career vs. Correia.
Of note: Correia has allowed two earned runs in his previous three starts against the Cubs.
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It was, as Maholm pointedly recalls, "as bad as it gets."
No one would doubt it. That 5.28 ERA, still the defining figure for pitching in this modern age of metrics, represented a low point for the franchise since 1952.
So, explain this: Today, nearly a third of the way through this season, the starters have a 3.91 ERA, a reduction of nearly a run and a half. That ranks 16th in the majors, seventh in the National League. Their record is 17-18, there have been three complete games, opponents are batting .259 and the ERA over the past seven games alone is 1.92.
That defies not only logic but also history: Since the lowering of the mound in 1969, trimming their ERA by a margin of 1.37 would be the fourth greatest for any team that finished the previous year with the majors' worst ERA, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
There is a long way to go, obviously, but this is how the Pirates have reversed course to this point ...
It began with the Pirates doing nothing. Or close.
Management set out to land at least one quality arm through free agency, and that led to an offer being made to left-hander Jorge De La Rosa. But De La Rosa re-signed with Colorado for two years and $21.5 million.
That might have looked like a loss at the time, but De La Rosa learned Wednesday that he has a torn elbow ligament and will need Tommy John surgery. He will be out for the rest of the season, and a full recovery is uncertain.
The Pirates wound up with two free-agent starters, but neither caused much excitement: Kevin Correia, who had a 5.40 ERA in San Diego despite the Padres' pitcher-friendly park, signed for two years and $8 million. Scott Olsen, long troubled on and off the field, signed for one year at a guaranteed $550,000.
Some upgrades, right?
"We knew we were taking a chance," general manager Neal Huntington said of his thinking at the time. "But we also had reasons to believe that our starters should have pitched better than they did in 2010, and we knew we had some young pitchers coming up behind them if they struggled again."
Olsen had hamstring trouble all spring and eventually was released. That meant Correia would be the lone addition to a rotation that carried over Maholm, Ohlendorf, Morton and James McDonald. Which, in turn, meant Morton essentially would be handed a job despite his disastrous 2010 that included a lengthy demotion to the minors.
Huntington's approach was to look at each pitcher case by case and assess his ability to turn it around.
"We did want to delve into the free-agent market and felt that Kevin was a candidate for a bounce-back season," Huntington said. "In Paul's case, we believed he was going to be a lot closer to what he was in 2009. We felt Ross was much, much better than his 1-11 record.
"We saw the great stuff Charlie had and felt like he could take a step forward. James had a couple of good months after we got him last season, and we wanted to keep running him out there. In our minds, it added up."
Pushing those pitchers would be Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris at the top two levels of the minors. Overall, Wilson has been the best of those at 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA for Class AAA Indianapolis, but Lincoln has been by far the best of late in limiting opponents to five earned runs over his past five starts.
The Pirates opened the season April 1 at cold, windswept Wrigley Field, where they will return today for a three-game set with the Chicago Cubs. Correia was coming off a rough spring, but he still was manager Clint Hurdle's choice for opening-day starter based largely on experience.
Correia's line was unspectacular -- three runs, two earned, over six innings -- but it was good enough to win, which is what the Pirates did by a 6-3 count.
"To me, this all goes back to what KC did for us that day in Chicago," catcher Chris Snyder said. "We all knew what happened last year, and we knew what everyone's expectations were this year, but he settled all of that down."
"It all started with Correia," Karstens said. "When one guy goes well, you never want to be the guy that disrupts it. We all followed what he did."
That extended well beyond Chicago: Correia is 6-4 with a 3.84 ERA, including a 5-0 start on the road that almost singlehandedly wiped away the epic road struggles of 2010. And, true to management's projection, he looked much more like the 2009 version than the one from last year, when his numbers worsened dramatically after his brother's tragic death in midseason.
Correia bluntly assessed the Pirates rotation as "underachievers" last year.
"Anytime you have a younger staff like they did, you're going to see some really good starts and some really bad ones," Correia said. "This group, as a whole, has some very good pitchers. But they needed a little more experience, and they needed to step up. That's what they've done."
Since Maholm, the Pirates' most-tenured pitcher, arrived in Pittsburgh in 2005, he has worked under five pitching coaches in seven years.
That has meant, essentially, five different types of instruction, philosophy and even personalities.
The Pirates think they have the right man in Ray Searage, who took over when Joe Kerrigan was fired last summer, though recent history would suggest only time -- and more results like these -- will tell.
"I think Ray deserves a good amount of the credit," Huntington said. "We took a step forward right when Ray took over last season, and that's continuing."
The pitchers and catchers, those who work most closely with Searage, glow about his work and his approach.
"Can't say enough about him," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "He's made a huge difference."
Searage's broader focus is on helping pitchers to have fun with the game, to feel and look loose and comfortable, an approach that has little in common with Kerrigan, his autocratic predecessor. Searage's earthier touch, along with research and input from minor-league pitching coordinator Jim Benedict, led to the dramatic overhaul of Morton's delivery that has brought a buzz around the baseball world.
But Searage seems to be most loved for his interaction with the players, which ranges from his generally affable nature to the far different approach he used May 19 in Cincinnati: McDonald had just labored through one inning and then allowed Jay Bruce to lead off the second with a home run. Searage burst from the dugout.
"Honestly, I was ready to wave the trainers out because I was sure Ray was going to pull something with how hard he was running," Snyder said.
Searage tore into McDonald, challenging him -- in explicit terms -- to trust his stuff and start pitching like he means it. McDonald would go 62/3 innings and not allow another run in a 5-3 victory.
"Ray has his way of handling things," Hurdle said, with a smile, that day.
"I'd say Ray understands every pitcher's personality and handles them in different ways," McDonald said. "That's a good thing to have."
Searage shuns any praise.
"They're all professionals, and their work ethic is off the charts," Searage said. "These guys have come to play, and they now know they've got the baseball for at least nine innings and 120 pitches. They know they're going to be out there not looking over their shoulder in the fourth or fifth innings for help from the bullpen. They're doing a heck of a job, and all the credit goes to them."
Some gets sent to the catchers, too. The acquisition of Snyder at the trade deadline last summer did not initially result in better defense, but it certainly has this season. Doumit also has performed better at the plate and behind it in his reduced duty.
"We think Chris has helped us, with his leadership and defense, and we've seen that Ryan is at his best when he's fresher," Huntington said. "That's had a significant impact on our pitching."
Ultimately, nothing has a greater impact than the pitchers themselves. So, in a case like the Pirates, that would have necessitated at least one or two very large surprises to bring a real improvement.
Atop this list, obviously, is Morton, whose 5-2 record and 2.61 ERA are in stark contrast to his 2-12 and 7.57 marks from last season. He is pitching -- and walking and talking -- with confidence that had been nowhere in sight before this year.
"What Charlie's done has made the biggest difference," Karstens said.
He has not been alone.
"Our top two are getting the job done, both KC and Paul," Snyder said. "Really, with Paul specifically, I can't begin to tell you how well he's pitched."
Maholm is 1-7, but his 3.65 ERA is infinitely more indicative of how he has pitched, given the measly 14 runs of support he has received in 10 starts. He has followed his spring goal of pitching inside more aggressively, and that has allowed him to get through times when his stuff is flat.
McDonald missed time in the spring because of a strained oblique and struggled most of April, but he has held opponents to two or fewer runs in five of his past six starts.
His recovery probably best illustrates the camaraderie the rotation has developed.
"I wasn't doing well, and these guys still talked to me, kept telling me they believe in me," McDonald said. "That keeps you confident."
Correia was instrumental there.
"Me and James, we're talking every day, even if it's not about baseball," Correia said. "I've gone through what he did, and you can get a little down. But he's getting that feel back, and I expect him to have a pretty good season from here on out."
"We're all talking to each other, pushing each other, trying to outdo each other," Maholm said.
Ohlendorf was off to a poor start before his shoulder shut him down again in early April. But even that brought a positive in that Karstens -- always conspicuously absent from management's view of potential long-term starters -- got another chance and has put up a 3.57 ERA.
Might he stick this time?
"It's possible that we've under-valued Jeff in the past," Huntington said. "We just need to continue seeing how he does once he gets past that 75- or 80-pitch threshold."
Huntington's broader view of the rotation is, as usual, cautious.
"It's been just about two months, and our starting pitching has done just about what our goal is," he said. "And that's been remarkable. They've kept us in almost every game we've played this year. Is it going to stay that way? We've got a lot of challenges going forward. But, instead of searching for ways to fill out the rotation, we look like we've got some depth and some choices now."
"Our mindset now is that we're good enough to be here," Karstens said. "Now, we just need to refine it and be more consistent."
Sounds like a start.