In his last three starts, McDonald has worked 21 innings and given up five runs on 14 hits, while striking out 25. Not coincidentally, those are his starts since A.J. Burnett joined the club, as fellow starter and lead counselor in matters mental.
"I've just tried to keep the same mentality and focus," McDonald said. "Every pitch, give it my best stuff."
"Another strong outing for James. First-pitch strikes, nine retired on three-pitches-or-less, only three three-ball counts," Hurdle said. "He gave us just what we needed."
With several quirky defensive plays neutralizing the defensive indecision that led to the only run against him, McDonald walked two and fanned six over the first three innings.
A revised lineup that featured Pedro Alvarez's debut in the cleanup spot contributed only coincidentally to the triumph.
All the help McDonald needed was provided by the top of the Bucs' lineup, on both sides of the ball. With two outs in the third, leadoff batter Jose Tabata doubled and new No. 2 hitter Neil Walker followed with a homer for a 2-0 lead. Alex Presley, after entering the game as part of a double-switch in the top of the seventh, homered in the bottom of the seventh for the eventual winning run.
"Home runs come and go," Walker said. "As a switch-hitter, I'm not going up there trying to hit the ball out of the park."
With a man on and two outs in the sixth, Tabata made an acrobatic catch of Joey Votto's twisting drive to the left-field warning track.
Seeing that catch, McDonald raised his arms in exultation. Then seeing Tabata bounce off the wall, McDonald wrapped those same arms around his head, in an expression of concern for his outfielder's condition. Tabata was fine, coming out of it in better shape than the sign covering the wall.
"I was just a little bit happy," McDonald said, smiling and holding his index finger and thumb about a quarter-inch apart. "That was a great play. There were a handful of great plays behind me tonight. The defense played really well."
Well, and opportunistic. A center-to-second double play. Another that went first-to-home. Two other, more routine twin-killings, one in which shortstop Clint Barmes snatched a hard smash up the middle in perfect timing, with his step atop the bag before relaying to first.
"That might be one of the better games we've played, when we had to make the plays to win the game," Hurdle said.
Catcher Rod Barajas also contributed, offering another example why a .140-hitting catcher remains a lineup mainstay. As a conductor of the pitching staff, his reputation is well established.
But Barajas also showed his defensive wiles in the fourth, when Votto attempted to score from third on Jay Bruce's one-out grounder to first. After Casey McGehee stepped on the bag for one out and threw home, Barajas deftly blocked Votto's access to the plate with his left foot, resulting in an inning-ending double play.
"That pick and tag ..." Hurdle said, searching for the right words. "Good stuff. Do or die. Keeping that run from scoring, we saw how big that played out."
Joel Hanrahan worked a perfect, uneventful ninth for his fifth save -- merely sustaining the tone McDonald had set.
"He's an exciting man for us to have in the rotation," Hurdle said.
The excitement has to do with McDonald's portrayal as the Pirates' potential difference-maker. The other starters are all known, proven. No one else has the ceiling headroom of McDonald.
"I really look forward to seeing the continuing evolution of this young man," Hurdle said. "The growth he has exhibited in a year's time is significant enough for you to be excited about it when he takes the mound."
The Reds broke through against McDonald in the seventh after Jay Bruce tripled under center fielder Andrew McCutchen's glove and scored on Scott Rolen's bloop single into short left. The Reds added a run in the eighth on Zack Cozart's RBI double off Jason Grilli.
Of course, all Hurdle needed to do for Walker to start hitting like a cleanup hitter was get him out of the cleanup spot.
Walker, who had entered the game with only two extra-base hits, both doubles, in 87 at-bats, crushed an 0-and-1 pitch from Leake for the two-run homer in the third. It was Walker's first home run since last Sept. 4, a stretch of 171 at-bats.