Bucs unravel late after solid McDonald effort

Bucs unravel late after solid McDonald effort

Bucs unravel late after solid McDonald effort
PITTSBURGH -- So this is the way it's going to stay. Pitch and play tough, and at the end of it either get a nice win, or a nice try.

On Tuesday night, the Pirates and starter James McDonald again had to settle for the latter in a 3-2 loss to the Mets at PNC Park after Lucas Duda's single under diving first baseman Garrett Jones' glove with two outs in the eighth inning snapped a 1-1 tie.

The smallest things continue to spell the difference between triumph and trauma for the Pirates. This time, it was something as slight as Jones' first step. As a soccer goalie guarding against a penalty kick, he had to instantly decide which way to break.

"If I step to my right before diving, I have it. But I just played the odds," Jones said. "He hit it pretty well. I made a diving effort and watched the tape and there were no false moves. He just squeaked it through."

"Squeak" is an operative word. This was the Bucs' fourth consecutive and overall 19th one-run game. Max Scherzer's 96-mph fastball, or R.A. Dickey's 76-mph knuckleball. Either way, one run -- one way or the other.

McDonald at least avoided the defeat, having retired after pitching four-hit ball for seven innings. Instead, Juan Cruz surrendered a one-out double to Mike Baxter, who scored on Duda's hit.

Baxter's double became the classic snow-cone play for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who had the ball squirt out of his leaping cone/glove webbing.

"Andrew doesn't miss very many in center. To go off his glove, and then have the one go off Jones' glove, it was ours tonight," said Mets manager Terry Collins.

A second critical run in the inning scored when Pedro Alvarez muffed Daniel Murphy's grounder to third, that error ending the team's errorless streak at 72 innings, the Bucs' longest since a 72-inning stretch from July 17-25, 2009.

"We had three balls go off gloves that inning, and they scored two runs," manager Clint Hurdle said.

That might have been Hurdle's terse way of aborting lines of questioning about home-plate umpire Mike Everitt's tight strike zone for Cruz, about the injustice of having to cope with the Majors' only current knuckleball pitcher.

The unearned run resulting from Alvarez's muff became decisive when the Pirates struck back in the bottom of the inning against Mets reliever Jon Rauch for a run when McCutchen popped a two-out single off second baseman Murphy's glove to score Jose Tabata, who had doubled.

The Mets scored a run that kept getting bigger with every passing inning in the second, with Mike Nickeas' two-out single making McDonald regret walks to Murphy and Ronny Cedeno earlier in the frame.

To add to McDonald's frustration, those were the only walks he issued in a seven-inning gem that is becoming routine for him. This time, McDonald allowed four hits and that run while striking out eight.

Two of the strikeouts came in McDonald's first two confrontations with the Majors' top hitter. Overall, David Wright went 0-for-3 against McDonald.

"It was real fun watching J-Mac take another step forward. The way he was able to pitch David Wright was impressive," said Hurdle, who had been duly impressed by Dickey as well.

"His numbers coming in [5-1 with an ERA of 3.75] are real. He competes and makes pitches," Hurdle said. "I was impressed more by the fact he's out there for seven innings, and I only saw two balls hit the dirt. More often than not, with a knuckleball pitcher, you see a lot of balls down."

Dickey protected his early run for five innings, then Josh Harrison again got on his nerves. More importantly, Harrison got on third base with a one-out triple, pausing there briefly before scoring on McCutchen's sacrifice fly to make it 1-1.

A fair draw between the starters, given that Dickey himself allowed five hits and a run in seven innings, during which he posted a career-high 11 strikeouts.

"Dickey was pretty tough," said Jones, 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against him. "He was throwing strikes with the knuckleball, making it move and dance. When you don't see a knuckleball pitcher a lot and do see one who's able to throw strikes, it's tough. And he had it dancing pretty good today."

McDonald raised his strikeout total since April 25 to 52 in 41 2/3 innings, quite an impressive pace to underscore his blossoming as a bona fide ace.

McDonald's 2.51 ERA is precisely three runs lower than it was at this same stage last season. The kicker: He has the same three wins he had at this point in 2011.

Again shaking off the issue of ill-support, McDonald said, "All I ask of them is to play hard behind me, and they did that. There were times last year I was terrible, and those guys still had my back."

The Pirates started off stashing Harrison; four weeks into the season, he had 18 at-bats. Now they'd like to clone him.

Harrison also collected a double off Dickey, raising his career average against the knuckleballer to .600 (6-for-10).

"The [double] was on a fastball, but the triple came on a knuckleball," Harrison said. "I just try to get ready to swing, and not worry about the break of the ball. There's no trick, just get down and ready and put a good swing on it."

Hurdle had shown confidence in Harrison by keeping him in right field against a Mets lineup crammed with five left-handed batters by Collins, who apparently believes in splits. Right-handed batters were hitting .173 against McDonald coming into this start.

"I'm trying to get comfortable out there," Harrison said after his second career start in right.

With lefty Jon Niese going for the Mets on Wednesday afternoon, Harrison should have another chance to find some comfort.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.