PITTSBURGH, Pa. — James McDonald continues to be the Pittsburgh Pirates ace this 2012 season. Facing a hot Cincinnati Reds lineup, McDonald was not fazed on Monday at PNC Park. Coming into Pittsburgh having won eight of their last nine games and sitting at the top the National League Central, McDonald cruised through their lineup on his way to eight scoreless innings — the first time in his Major League career.
“He did an unbelievable job,” catcher Rod Barajas said. “He’s been outstanding for us all season long. He’s been great. I heard a lot of things about J-Mac and how he just hasn’t gotten [over] that ‘hump’. I don’t see any hump anywhere around when he’s pitching. He’s been unbelievable for us this year.”
“He finished strong,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “12 straight retired going out the door. I think that was another great step forward for him. Very strong outing from James today.”
Beginning with his eight strikeout performance on April 25, McDonald entered game action sharing the lead in strikeouts (52) with Washington’s Gio Gonzalez. McDonald tacked on five more in his 10th start of the season. Those 57 whiffs have come over 49.2 innings, which included a career-high 11 on May 17. McDonald posted a 4.21 ERA during his 2011 season, and after today’s solid start, dropped his ERA in 2012 to just 2.20.
“I’m not like a lot of other people,” Hurdle said. “I don’t expect certain things from certain people. I give them a backboard during the season and let them draw things up on it. I just try to encourage them along the way. I don’t set ceilings for people, nor do I build walls around people. I give them the opportunity to grow and to compete, to be challenged. Where they go with it, god bless them. That’s what’s been fun to watch. I think it goes back to my playing days and having a lot of projections thrown at me. And understand what the weight of those things can do when you don’t meet other people’s expectations. I’m proud of him. I’m pleased. I think there’s a lot of good things from him.”
“I think besides the slider, the biggest thing has been his composure,” Barajas said, who hadn’t caught him prior to spring training. “Early on, you see him out there pitching, he gives up a couple runs or a walk, or even makes one bad pitch and you just see him down on himself. It’s almost like he’s angry, he dwells on that one bad pitch. I think he’s been able to go pitch-by-pitch. Forget about the pitch he threw before quickly and make sure you go out there and execute the next one. It’s a maturity level. I definitely think he’s matured in that aspect. You can’t dwell on what’s happened in the past, I think he’s definitely understands he needs to move forward pitch by pitch.”
McDonald whiffed two of the first four batters he faced in the 1st inning. After tossing two scoreless, McDonald worked himself into a jam in the third.
Catcher Ryan Hanigan led off with a double into the notch in left center field. McDonald allowed his next batter to reach base on with his first walk of the game. But the right-hander worked himself out of the jam unscathed. Drew Stubbs hit a grounder back to McDonald, who threw to third for the force out. A 1-2 curveball froze Wilson Valdez for the second out, before getting slugging first baseman Joey Votto to fly out to end the inning.
“It was big,” McDonald said of escaping the third inning.”That’s one of the things I focused on, wanted to work on this year. When I get into a jam, I need to be that same pitcher, same mentality, same focus. Go at them. I got in that mode where I say, ‘this is it.’ I put my foot down. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on mentally.”
Just as McDonald worked himself out of a no-out jam in the third, he was just as impressive working himself out of it again in the fifth. McDonald allowed back-to-back singles to start the frame. The right-hander struck out Drew Stubbs looking and the got the other two to pop and ground out.
“Huge,” Hurdle said of escaping the inning. “He might not be around in the 6th. He might not be around in the 7th. The way that team can swing the bat, in those two situations can turn on you dynamically and they can turn on you in a hurry…Got him to pop up and took care of things from there. He found ways to get out of those two jams.”
McDonald tied his career-high 8.0 innings (also May 11 against Houston) on Monday afternoon. He held the Reds to just five hits and a walk with five strikeouts while throwing 103 pitches. Getting ahead of guys, McDonald said, has been a big key for him and his success this year.
“When it’s strike one, strike two, the counts in your favor,” McDonald said. “They don’t know what’s coming. It could be slider, curveball, changeup, fastball, anything. Majority of the time when it’s 1-0, you know what’s coming. That’s helped me a lot this year. Just getting ahead of guys.”
“I like the way he’s stepped up his overall game,” Hurdle said. “I think we all saw the same situations last year. First and second, no outs, those innings would have slowed down dramatically to start with. He might have looked for runners to disappear, rather than to get people out. The focus, the mound presence, the first thing that jumps out at me is the way he’s standing over the rubber and picking up sings. After that it’s been fastball command and pitch efficiency. That’s a big package that he’s put together from last season to this season.
“I’m just along for the ride. And I’m enjoying it.”
Offense Breaking Out With Two-Out Hitting
Over their last two games, the Pirates offense was able to put runs on the board in the first inning. And what was even more impressive was the fact that both runs that scored off the Reds came with two outs.
With two outs in the first and Neil Walker on third base, Pedro Alvarez battled against Cincinnati right-hander Bronson Arroyo. Alvarez fell behind 1-2, but battled the count full and took the eighth pitch off the wall in left field for an RBI opposite field double –just inches shy of his ninth home run. Alvarez has an RBI in each of his last three games.
“That’s an important part of his growth,” Hurdle said. “There has been times where those at-bats happen pretty quick. And that was a very professional at-bat. He got in the batters box, and he competed. When he drives in a run, our record is in a very good place.”
Garrett Jones, who went 2-for-4 (double and homer) in yesterday’s game, hit a RBI single to right for the second run of the inning.
More two-out clutch hitting gave the Pirates a three-run lead in the next inning. With James McDonald on second base, Neil Walker roped a RBI double down the right field line for his second straight hit off Arroyo in as many at-bats.
Alvarez picked up his second double of the game with a leadoff knock to start the bottom of the third inning. For the third straight inning, the Pirates drove in a run with two-outs. This time, Rod Barajas drove in Alvarez from second base with a single to right.
“I don’t think we’re hitting our stride, but I think we’re hitting what we believe we can hit,” Hurdle said. “We’ve got guys that have had history of swinging the bat and being productive. Very rarely to do see that many guys on one team be challenged for this period of time together. We’ve only had one or two players meeting or exceeding expectations. When you’ve got 10 guys underneath that, it’s hard.”
“There’s been no quit. They continue to work. We believe we’re going to get better. I think they’ve showed that over the last couple days.”
Barajas’ Adjustments Paying Off
After starting the season hitting just .143, Rod Barajas has seeing his extra work paying off in the month of May. When the club signed Barajas, it wasn’t for him to be a big threat in the lineup, but to produce with some pop and handle the pitching staff. While the Bucco pitchers have been one of the best collectively in the Majors this season, Barajas was frustrated with his lack of offense.
The catcher went 2-for-3 with a RBI on Monday against the Reds and is hitting for a .305 clip in May.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable than I did a month ago,” Barajas said. “I’ve been sticking to a routine. Just try and not do too much. Obviously I wasn’t happy with the way the season started. The fact that I wasn’t doing much offensively to help the team out. Now that I’m starting to swing the bat a little better, I just want to keep going with it. I’m not trying to go out there and put the team on my shoulders. I just want to chip in. I’ve been able to do that lately and hopefully I can carry that on.”
Hague First Major League Double
Since being recalled on Friday from Triple-A Indianapolis, Matt Hague has gone 4-for-12 (.333) with two walks. The first baseman has picked up a hit in each of his four straight games up, and his first Major League double off the Reds reliever Alfredo Simon in the fifth inning.
Lefty Tony Watson allowed a run on a walk and a hit in the 9th inning to erase the shutout, but closer Joel Hanrahan got the final out to give the Bucs their fourth straight win and to push them to .500 (24-24) on the season.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Hurdle said. “I’ve played on a team, been on a team where we were nowhere close Memorial Day and went to the World Series twice. The measuring stick, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I like the direction we’re heading. I’m easy to please and hard to satisfy. I like the direction. I like the focus. I like the preparation. We just need to go out and play, and play with confidence.”