Pirates Notebook: James McDonald Taking Steps Forward Thanks to Slider

Photo by Mark Olson

When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired James McDonald from the Los Angeles Dodgers (along with prospect outfielder Andrew Lambo) for closer Octavio Dotel in 2010, the club knew that they were getting a talented arm. The righty made 11 starts with Pittsburgh that year after spending most of his Major League career with the Dodgers in the bullpen.

In McDonald’s first full season with the Pirates in 2011, he led the club in starts (31) and strikeouts (142). McDonald didn’t make an official spring training start due to soreness in his right side, but he made his regular season debut on the fifth game of the 2011 season. After posting a 10.13 ERA over his first four starts, perhaps due to recovering from the injury, McDonald went on to post a 3.49 ERA over the remainder of the season.

McDonald continues to evolve in 2012 and is pitching the best in his professional career.

“It’s fun to watch this young man take steps forward,” Manager Clint Hurdle said.

What’s been different for McDonald has been the addition of the slider. He had the pitch last year, but rarely threw it.

“At times, he didn’t have the command of his fastball, it would come and go,” Hurdle said of the difference in McDonald this season. “But the command of his breaking ball was the one deal breaker. That was never really a go-to pitch. He had it a handful of times. It was a pitch he had, but not with the consistency. Now the addition of the slider with the curveball, the fastball command is setting everything up.”

“Now the confidence is just surging. When he gets to two strikes, he’s got a couple of ways he can cut you up. He can still go fastball up top. He can try and paint with it. He can throw the slider, back foot or he can throw the breaking ball, dump it behind the plate. He’s making very positive strides.”

Hurdle said that McDonald came into spring training in February in Bradenton, Florida, wanting to improve his fastball command.

“Fastball command was the No. 1 focus,” Hurdle said. “After that, it’s trusting the breaking ball. Not trying to guide it, not trying to throw the most unbelievable one he’s ever thrown every time he grips it to let it go. That comes back to repeating his delivery. He’s in a good place now. He’s repeating his delivery. The ball is coming out of his hand the same spot, the same arm angle all the time.”

“I think [Catcher] Rod [Barajas] has helped his development as far as challenging him. I think A. J. [Burnett]. We’ve got some veteran players that have also maybe spoken greatness into him, or confidence, challenge him in some ways. I think he’s got greater importance of the four days that he’s not pitching. What he needs to do to prepare and be ready. It’s not just getting the ball every fifth day and I’m a starter. There’s a responsibility that comes with starting that I think he understands more as well.”

McDonald found success during spring training in five of his six starts. During that one start, McDonald got shelled for 10 runs scored on seven hits over 3.2 innings. But what the right-hander learned from that outing was mental toughness. And since then, has not allowed more than three earned runs during a start.

“That was a period where he was going through a little dead arm period,” Hurdle recalled. “He wasn’t feeling well that day. He had an issue with his finger. We just told him, ‘table all that‘. There’s days you’ve just go to table all that. He ended up wearing it that day. But the point being, he took a step forward. I think it was mental toughness.”

“It was just a step in the right direction as far as the mentality was involved. Not everyday you’re going to have your “A” game. Not every day you’re going to feel great. Not everyday all the pitches are going to snap and be tight. But you’ve got to find a way to draw something up in the dirt and compete.”

On Thursday night in Washington D.C. against the Nationals, McDonald allowed three runs on four hits over 5.2 innings. He walked one and struck out 11 batters. His 11 whiffs are a career-high, passing his 10-mark he set earlier this season.

McDonald struck out nine overall of the first 12 batters he faced — which included six straight Nationals from the first inning until getting a fly out to end the third. Catcher Jesus Flores broke up the no-hitter to leadoff the sixth with a double to left. McDonald also took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park on April 25.

The two runs McDonald allowed came in the sixth frame. After back-to-back doubles, Ryan Zimmerman laced a two-run single into right with two outs. Overall in 2012, McDonald has posted a 2.68 ERA over 49.1 innings.


Club Working Hard to Improve Stolen Bags

The Pirates have 18 stolen bases over 38 games this season — which is ranked No. 24 in the Majors. They’ve also been caught attempting to swipe a bag 15 times — which is tied for most in the Majors.

“Nobody likes to give up outs on the bases,” Hurdle said. “We’re a case in point right now. It continues to get brought to my attention. Coming into this job, we don’t have an overabundance of power. We’re starting to pitch very well. We play pretty good defense. We’re not hitting the way we need to be hitting. We get on the bases, we need to find a way to be aggressive. We need to be smart. We need to make good decisions. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. But that mindset has to be put into play.”

“That’s one of the things we’re going to continue to push forward here…We’re going to continue to work very, very hard at becoming better base runners. And aggressive base runners. And that starts with the stolen base game. We need some work on that as well because those numbers aren’t where we’d like to have them.”


McCutchen a Nationals Killer

Pirates Andrew McCutchen went 2-for-4 against Washington on Thursday night — both hits were solo-home runs. The first came with two outs in the first off Jordan Zimmermann. The second was an 0-1 slider for a bomb to leadoff the sixth frame. Over 23 career games against the Nationals, McCutchen is hitting .447 (38-for-85) with six doubles, two triples, 10 home runs, 21 RBI and 24 runs scored.


Hughes leading Rookies

Right-handed reliever Jared Hughes pitched a scoreless inning in relief in the Pirates 7-4 loss to the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night. He extended his scoreless innings streak to 9.0 innings. Hughes entered game action with the lowest ERA (1.31) among all rookies in the Majors.

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  • salempirate

    Hughes is a big 6’6″ draftee from the Littlefield days. Regardless of his background it’s great to see his stats. Do the Pirates have one of the best pitching coaches in the game? Shame they’re bare at the hitting coach position.
    McDonald is off to a great start. It’s hard to believe he’s 27 with the amount of time he’s spent in the big leagues. Hopefully, he’ll get extended as Tim suggested, in due time.

    • Lee Young

      They’re also bare at baserunning coaches. Both Ritchie and Silverio must have ‘pictures’ of NH and Clint.

      Good luck with that baserunning improvement. How long has Silverio been on the job? They’ve gotten worse. Replace him.

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