At the risk of excessively lapsing into sports metaphors, I think it's noteworthy that Alcoa (NYSE: AA) stepped to the plate in the leadoff reporting position after Monday's close and slapped a clean single through the middle of the infield.

As the first of the big companies to report quarterly results, let's hope that the big aluminum manufacturer set a tone for those that will follow by comfortably topping analysts' expectations. For the quarter, it achieved net income of $258 million, or $0.24 a share, a solid turnaround from the $277 million, or $0.28-a-share loss, for the same quarter a year ago.

And while the latest quarter included one-time gains totaling $35 million -- or $0.03 per share -- the key is that Alcoa handily beat earnings expectations of $0.18 a share. Revenues were up 4% to $5.65 billion.

Alcoa's sound performance is a likely precursor for the economy in general. Aluminum is used in crucial businesses such as automobiles and trucking, aircraft, construction, and consumer products. While we tend to look first to China, India, and other developing countries for clues to demand for commodities, the lion's share of Alcoa's output is actually sold at home and in Europe.

On a segment basis, after-tax operating income (ATOI) from alumina dropped by $5 million from the third quarter to $65 million. However, a one-time $42 million tax item in the third quarter hid the improvement in this segment. Primary metals' ATOI was up fully $100 million to $178 million, while flat-rolled products slipped to $53 million, or by $13 million, from the third quarter. Finally, engineered products and solutions checked in with after-tax earnings that were about flat compared with the third quarter.

But the improvement for Alcoa and the economy in general likely hasn't run its course. As CEO Klaus Kleinfeld noted, "We exceeded all of our targets and continued to build momentum. We delivered all-time record cash from operations, record fourth-quarter free cash flow, improved earnings, grew revenue and paid down debt."

Further, the company will restart three U.S. aluminum smelters. One is in New York, while the other two are in Washington state. The plants will assist the company in meeting Kleinfeld's forecast of a 12% demand increase for aluminum in 2011 -- on top of the 13% growth last year.

We'll, of course, know more about the bigger trends in the industry when we get reports from the likes of smaller players, such as Kaiser Aluminum (Nasdaq: KALU) and Century Aluminum (Nasdaq: CENX). Beyond that, other metals producers -- U.S. Steel (NYSE: X) and Freeport McMoRan (NYSE: FCX) being prime examples -- will probably further confirm Alcoa's solid picture, following the weaknesses of past years.

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We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.