Randy, Paula and Simon need to watch out because the next American Idol could be Erie's starting pitcher Nate Cornejo – if the whole baseball thing doesn't work out. Cornejo's fellow SeaWolves can vouch for the fact that Cornejo sings everywhere – in the clubhouse, on the 10-hour bus rides and even on the mound.
But it wasn't Cornejo's singing that made him a 1st round draft pick for the Detroit Tigers in 1998's amateur draft; it was his velocity as a pitcher. Unfortunately for him, smooth would not be the word to describe this Wellington, KS native's yellow brick road to and from the majors.
After making his debut at the end of the 2001 season, Cornejo started with the Tigers in 2002 but his pitching wasn't up to par the first month and a half and so he was sent to AAA. Then 2003 marked Cornejo's first full season with Detroit, having 32 starts. Things were looking promising for the 6'5 RHP, until he was put on the Tigers' disabled list for a shoulder injury in May of ‘04. Cornejo has now recovered from the resulting surgery, and is pitching for Erie.
After playing in the majors, being sent back to the minors wasn't easy for Cornejo to digest.
"It's the worst feeling," Cornejo said, "after being up there and experiencing that with the top baseball players. You're on top of the world and then they tell you something like that – it's kind of hard to take in."
The move served as Cornejo's learning lesson.
"The biggest thing I learned when they first sent me down – I kind of went down with a bad attitude throughout the first month because I didn't think I deserved to be there," Cornejo said. "But I'm here now, trying to get back to where I want to be and just making the best of it."
Cornejo is making the best of it by having a 3.40 ERA, which stems from the combination of talent and attitude.
"You've got to go out there thinking you're unstoppable," Cornejo said. "If you go out there thinking they're going to hit you around, then they probably will. You have to go out there with the attitude that you are unstoppable."
Pitching runs in the Cornejo family – starting with his father, who pitched for the New York Mets. Cornejo said he and his father would always go outside and play ball together and he learned from his dad as he got older. Sweet 16 was when Cornejo realized the magnitude of his talent.
"In summer ball, my dad was always one of the coaches. I'd always be mad at him because whenever I started throwing a lot of pitches, he'd take me out," Cornejo said. "I'd always get mad at him and ask him why. The thing is, when I was 16 years old, he pulled me aside and said the reason I pulled you out of games is because I think you're going to be a first round pick when you turn 18. It kind of hit me right there that I didn't realize how good I was at the time."
Although playing in the majors wasn't the same as summer ball, Cornejo didn't let nerves get the best of him.
"The first couple of games I was nervous in front of 40,000 fans," Cornejo said, "but once I get out there on the mound, I zone in and don't even realize who's watching me."
Cornejo said being on the mound changes everything.
"A lot of times you start warming up for the game and don't feel good at all," Cornejo said. "You go in the pen and might be thinking to yourself – I'm going to struggle tonight – but once you get on the mound, it totally changes.
"My dad always told me there's no bigger high than pitching on the mound and pitching well and he's right."
Another high for Cornejo was the royal treatment he experienced before he left the major league.
"The game is the same – it's just the difference between 5,000 fans and 40,000 fans," Cornejo said. "You get treated a little better [in the majors] and you don't have to carry your own bags. You don't have to take these 10-hour bus trips either – you get to fly. The food is a lot better and you can have anything you want -treatment-wise. Game-wise, it's all the same. You go out there and pitch the same distance – the bases are the same."
Cornejo said when he first got to the majors – trying to prove he deserved to be there was one of the factors that hurt him for his first few starts.
"I had a bad first start in the major leagues, " Cornejo said. "The next game I'd think I was trying harder and that's one of the things I learned. I learned to relax and pitch like when I was in the minors and just let it work."
Cornejo said it's hard as a starter because you pitch once every fifth day. He said if he struggles during one game, he has to wait four more days before getting a chance to redeem himself on the mound. When Cornejo is on the mound, he likes to throw his main fast pitch and won't describe himself as a strikeout pitcher. He lets the guys hit and trusts that his team's defense will get the player out. Cornejo said that when there is team unity, winning comes along with it.
For the moment, Cornejo is enjoying his time with the SeaWolves and nursing his shoulder back to health.
"The main thing for me this year is to stay healthy, get my velocity back up to where it should be and get through this shoulder injury," Cornejo said. "I think the big plan is for next year."