McDonald emerging as Pirates' top starter

McDonald emerging as Pirates' top starter

McDonald emerging as Pirates' top starter
Through the first month and a half of the 2012 season, James McDonald has shown marked improvement. The 27-year-old right-hander from Long Beach, Calif., had exhibited flashes of brilliance in the past, but he's become more consistent and more dominant this year.

The numbers tell the story.

In his first seven starts, McDonald has gone 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA, and he's leading the staff in innings pitched (44.2) and strikeouts (39). What's more, he's allowed only 31 hits and limited the opposition to a .203 batting average.

McDonald took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of the first game of an April 25 doubleheader at PNC Park and wound up with a no-decision in a 2-1 Pirates loss, despite the fact that he surrendered only one hit and struck out eight in seven innings. He followed that with an excellent outing on April 30 in Atlanta in which he fanned a career-high 10 batters in 7 2/3 innings and registered a 9-3 victory. Then, after beating Cincinnati, 3-2, at PNC Park on May 5, McDonald lost, 1-0, to the Astros in Pittsburgh on May 11, when the only run of the contest scored on a double-play ball in the first inning.

"He's been on a roll. That was an impressive performance tonight," manager Clint Hurdle said after McDonald's gem against Houston. "It's fun to watch this young man take steps forward.

"If you watched him pitch last year, [you saw] it was hard for him to get through the sixth. The command of his fastball would come and go, but the command of his breaking ball was the deal breaker. It was a pitch he had, but it was never a go-to pitch. Now, the addition of the slider, with the curveball and the fastball command, is setting everything up. Now the confidence is just surging. There are a lot of ways he can cut you up."

McDonald was acquired from the Dodgers in the July 2010 deal that sent the veteran reliever Octavio Dotel to Los Angeles. In his first full season in Pittsburgh, 2011, the man they call J-Mac went 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA in 31 starts and led the staff in strikeouts, with 142.

When he arrived in Bradenton, Fla., for Spring Training this year, McDonald told Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage that his No. 1 priority was improving his fastball command. He did that, plus added the slider to his repertoire. McDonald already had a power curveball, and the slider gave him another weapon.

"On the nights he's got both, it's very good," Hurdle said.

McDonald has also matured as both a person and a big leaguer, and a couple of new teammates -- catcher Rod Barajas and pitcher A.J. Burnett -- are helping in that regard.

"I think Rod has helped his development as far as challenging him, and I think A.J. has, too," Hurdle said. "We have some veteran players that have spoken greatness into him or confidence, or challenged him in some ways.

"James has also attached greater importance to the four days he's not pitching and what he needs to do to prepare and be ready. It's not just getting the ball every fifth day and [saying], 'I'm a starter.' There's a responsibility that comes with starting that I think he understands more as well. He's in a very good place and a very professional place, and he's having a lot of fun with it."

The definition of a quality start is one of at least six innings in which three earned runs or fewer are allowed, but McDonald believes you should have to pitch deeper into games in order to qualify.

"To me, eight or nine innings is a quality start," McDonald said. "If you can go eight or nine innings, that shows you were in the game and competing that whole time, and they can't have many runs off you if you're still in there. I think that's what a quality start is. A good start is six, seven innings. But eight or nine, I feel like those are quality starts.

"You want to be able to go deep into the game, and you want to affect the outcome. If I could write the script, I would say zero runs. You have to do what you can control, and what I can control is my effort and going out there and competing. Every five days I'll go out there and give them everything I have. If you do that, you should have a pretty good day."

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.