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McDonald eyes slot in Dodgers' rotation

McDonald eyes slot in Dodgers' rotation

LOS ANGELES -- James McDonald gets a do-over.

A year ago -- with six regular-season scoreless innings and 5 1/3 more in the playoffs under his belt -- he came into Spring Training as the lukewarm favorite for the fifth starter job, got the nod when the season opened, but lasted only four starts.

A year later, he's in the mix again for the same job. Management isn't so sure, which is why it opened the competition to at least a half-dozen other candidates, while suggesting McDonald could just as easily wind up a reliever.

No, thanks, said McDonald. He wants that fifth slot in the rotation and he said he's ready to win it.

"I want to be a starter," McDonald said. "Last year, I didn't even know. This year I'm coming in with a different mindset, and starting is all I'm thinking about."

McDonald won the job by default last spring with a 2-3 record and 5.09 ERA, which was good enough to best Jason Schmidt, Eric Milton, Eric Stults, Shawn Estes and Claudio Vargas. Stults is back this year, joined by Scott Elbert, Josh Lindblom, Charlie Haeger, Rule 5 Draft pick Carlos Monasterios, Russ Ortiz and Ramon Ortiz.

It would seem to be a deeper and healthier group of competitors this time around, but based on his 2009 season, McDonald seems the most deserving to make the Major League staff this year. And he said he has something this spring that was missing last spring.

"Confidence," he said. "It's a big difference maker in anything you do."

McDonald said he grew up as a pitcher with a stint this winter in the Dominican Republic.

"It was a great learning process," he said. "You're facing a lot of older Latin guys down there and they know how to hit so you have to learn how to pitch. I came out of it a way better pitcher."

After "winning" the fifth starter job last spring, he went 1-1 with an 8.78 ERA before being sent to the bullpen, a brief waystation before a demotion to Triple-A. After six effective starts for Albuquerque, McDonald was recalled and settled into a comfortable role as a middle reliever.

In 41 relief appearances, he was 4-4 with a 2.72 ERA. He was especially effective against left-handed hitters (.213 average), at home (2.78 ERA) and with runners in scoring position and two out (.182).

The slender 25-year-old right-hander from Long Beach blames his struggles last April on the mental part of the game.

"I was shaky, I was questioning myself," he said. "I was thinking about stuff that was going to happen, that might go wrong, if I don't do this or if I don't do that. I've learned to wipe all that out, just pitch one pitch at a time."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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