"The last couple have been rough," McDonald said after his record dropped to 10-5. "Every year I seem to get into the same situation, where I have to fight through a handful of rough starts. So I have some work ahead of me: Make some adjustments in the bullpen, and take those out with me in my next outing."
That work began even before Sunday's game ended. McDonald pored over some tape of when he had it going good -- there was a lot of footage to choose from -- in search of the missing key(s). The redemptive work will continue up to his next assignment, tentatively set for Saturday in Cincinnati.
"We'll have a challenging conversation [Monday] in Chicago [where the Pirates will be opening a three-game series against the Cubs], try to get our foot down and get things moving in the right direction," manager Clint Hurdle said.
Trailing, 5-2, the Pirates' best shot at another dramatic comeback had given Hurdle a chance to use the rare silver bullet in his belt in the sixth inning. Andrew McCutchen, sitting out a start, came off the bench to pinch-hit as the potential lead run with the bases loaded and two outs.
"Brought some drama to the game," Hurdle said.
Right-hander Fernando Rodriguez, fresh into the game in relief of Harrell, retired McCutchen on a pop to shallow right.
That sealed the fate of the Pirates, who had squirmed for five innings behind McDonald, who allowed six hits and a career-high seven walks.
"I was just getting behind guys, and wasn't making the pitches I should be," McDonald said. "I have to find the things I'm getting away from, got to keep pushing and keep competing, considering what the team's situation is."
McDonald is still snapping off that vanishing curve that so mystified the league for three months. The difference seems to be that he hasn't been able to do it consistently, and has also lacked the fastball command that had cornered batters into chase mode.
"He's not getting consistently to the point he needs to be to repeat his delivery," Hurdle said. "Not enough first-pitch strikes. Not the same fastball command for extended periods. Some of the sequences are there, but not the consistency."
The seven free passes were two more than his previous career high. He closed the books on a July in which he walked 23 in 34 2/3 innings. He had begun the month with a total of 26 walks in his previous 96 innings. Also, his ERA zoomed from 2.44 to 3.38 this month.
McDonald weaved through the first five walks -- only one resulted in a run, on J.D. Martinez's third-inning sacrifice fly -- but No. 6 was more costly. After Garrett Jones had given him a 2-1 lead with a two-run homer in the fourth, No. 16, McDonald walked Chris Snyder in the bottom of the inning ahead of Jordan Schafer's homer.
The Astros stayed on McDonald's case in the fifth. Martinez tripled past a stumbling Jones in right and scored on Scott Moore's single to make it 4-2. Steve Pearce chopped a double over third baseman Pedro Alvarez's head, prompting an intentional walk of Brian Bogusevic to load the bases, still with nobody out. When McDonald limited the additional damage out of that to one more run on Schafer's infield grounder, the escape seemed to set the stage for one of the Pirates' patented off-the-mat jobs.
Not this time, however.
You can add "stolen base" to the list of Starling Marte's career firsts, but it was anything but monumental: With Jordy Mercer on third and two outs in the fifth, he took off for second and did not draw a throw from a leery Snyder, who was keeping one eye on Mercer. The threat furthered by Marte's steal was defused when Alex Presley fanned on a full-count pitch.
The brief start by McDonald enabled Correia to make his season debut as a reliever. The right-hander, ousted from the rotation by the trade for Wandy Rodriguez, came on to allow an RBI single to Moore in the sixth that gave Houston a 6-2 lead, then in the seventh, Gonzalez's bases-clearing double signaled runaway.
"The numbers weren't what you want to see, but it was his first time. You have to get acclimated," said Hurdle, who went to Correia to save the guts of his bullpen for the Chicago series. "That's one of the challenges of the role, giving innings to help everybody else. We'll give [Correia] a Mulligan and move on."