Correia off to good start as Twins’ new ace

MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Correia may be surprising Twins fans with the start he’s had to the season, but nobody in Minnesota’s clubhouse seems stunned by what the veteran right-hander is doing.

With eight scoreless innings in Sunday’s 5-0 win over Texas, Correia is now 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA in five starts this season. In all five outings, he’s gone at least seven innings and has yet to allow more than three runs in a start.

Those numbers may turn some heads outside of the Twins clubhouse, but no one on the inside seems all too shocked.

“He hasn’t really surprised me,” said Joe Mauer, who caught Correia in Sunday’s win. “He’s throwing the ball well. He’s executing. Hopefully he continues to do that.”

Sunday’s eight-inning effort was the longest start for Correia since he pitched a complete game with Pittsburgh on April 18, 2011 against Cincinnati. The last time Correia went at least eight scoreless innings prior to Sunday was way back on Sept. 25, 2009.

Not many people saw this coming when the Twins inked Correia to a two-year deal this offseason in an effort to bolster the starting rotation. But through the first month of the season, Correia has been the ace of Minnesota’s staff.

“I don’t know what people were expecting,” Correia said when asked if he feels he’s surprised people. “I’m only five starts in. I’m not going to be pitching on a high the whole year. I’ll have some starts where it just doesn’t work. But it’s nice to get off to a good start when you go to a new team.”

Correia held the hot-hitting Rangers to just six hits in eight innings. He walked one batter and struck out two and needed 102 pitches to get through eight innings.

While Correia would have loved the chance to get his first complete game in over two years, Minnesota opted to put reliever Casey Fien in to pitch the ninth.

“I had no thoughts, because I was thrown out of the game,” manager Ron Gardenhire joked after the game, during which he was ejected in the seventh inning. “I wasn’t able to go talk to my pitching coach. I don’t know his pitch count. I think it was up there around 100. There’s no sense this early in the season running him up any higher than that. I told Kevin when he came in the clubhouse, if I were still managing he would have stayed in the game — just to appease him.”

When Correia is on, he induces lots of ground balls. That was certainly the case Sunday as he got 13 ground ball outs in his eight innings of work. Correia got three groundouts in the seventh inning but the three outs in the eight were all on fly balls, a sign that the ball was starting to get up in the zone a bit.

So after eight scoreless innings, Correia’s job was done. It was yet another quality start, his fifth of the season. He joins Felix Hernandez and Clay Buchholz as one of three American League pitchers with five quality starts this year.

Going deep into games like he did Sunday is a luxury Correia wasn’t often afforded during his 10 seasons in the National League. No more having to get pinch-hit for in the later innings has allowed him to go at least seven innings in all five starts.

“If I was in the National League, I would probably have maybe five less innings than I do right now,” Correia said. “To be able to go out there a little longer, it’s fun. It’s what I like doing. It’s the way I pitch to try to keep my pitch count down if I’m throwing well. It’s nice to be able to go deeper into games.”

The Twins have lost just one game in which Correia has started so far this year. That came back on April 8 when he allowed three runs in 7-1/3 innings to the Royals, a 3-2 loss for Minnesota. Even then, the veteran right-hander gave his team a chance.

With the way the Twins’ rotation struggled to go deep into games last season, Correia has been everything they hoped he would be through the early going — even if it’s not what fans expected.

And at 11-10 following Sunday’s win, the Twins as a team may be surprising some folks too, thanks in part to Correia.

“We just want our fans to enjoy this team,” Gardenhire said. “It’s a good bunch of guys out there. They’re working really hard. We have a long ways to go. It’s early in the season. But they’ve been working hard since spring training started to get this thing (going) the right way.  . . . That’s our goal is to get our fans riled up on this team and start filling this place again and winning ballgames.”

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