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With Guidance From Veterans, McDonald Evolving into Ace

James McDonald – Photo by Mark Olson

After James McDonald tossed his first career complete game his last trip to the mound on Thursday at PNC Park, he explained what was the biggest key for him in his impressive 2012 season. The reason? Guidance from veterans Rod Barajas and A.J. Burnett.

“Those guys influence me in a lot of ways,” McDonald explained. “Now, I expect seven innings every time. Before I didn’t even think about that. Just that mentality there. They tell me I need to be the guy that wants the ball seven innings every time. Just seeing them guys have confidence in me, it kind of puts confidence in myself to believe in myself and that I can do those things.”

The lack of confidence and maturity was the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers traded the talented prospect at the time to Pittsburgh. The Pirates sent closer Octavio Dotel on July 31, 2010 for McDonald and also got minor league outfielder Andrew Lambo. Dotel was later traded to Colorado that season after the Dodgers fell out of contention. But McDonald is showing every five days this season that the Bucs got the far better end of the deal.

“It’s been a lot of fun” catcher Barajas said on working with McDonald. “Even when I was in L.A., I talked to Tim Wallach, who was the Manager that J-Mac had in the minor leagues over there. He always said that he was disappointed that they traded him. He thought that he was going to be a really good pitcher. The reasoning was the maturity. They didn’t see the maturity, so that’s why they traded him.”

“Coming over here, I kind of knew that this guy had good stuff, but mentally was he there? Coming into camp and getting to know him and having A.J. around and getting feedback from the other guys and the coaches about what this guy needed and why he didn’t have the consistent success throughout the season last year, it kind of made myself and A.J. make this a project for us. We saw the stuff, we saw the ability, we saw that this guy had the stuff to be an elite pitcher at this level. And we like him so much that we wanted to work with him. We wanted to help him out as much as possible to guide him and get him over that hump.”

McDonald has definitely pitched himself over the hump. The 27-year-old is raising eyes this season and posting numbers worthy of an All-Star nod. Over 14 starts this season, McDonald has posted a 2.19 ERA. He’s struck out 83 batters over 90.1 innings — which included a career-high 11 on a May 17 performance –and has limited hitters to just a .195 average and an 0.95 WHIP. The right-hander hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his starts this season, and an impressive eight of those 14 have been one earned run or fewer.

He’s even better at home. At PNC Park this season, McDonald sports just a 1.63 ERA over eight starts. Among active players with at least 80.0 innings pitched, McDonald’s 2.19 ERA this season is third-best in all of baseball. And beginning with his start on April 18, McDonald’s 1.97 ERA is the best among all starters (minimum 10 starts).

“For him to be doing what he’s doing, for me, it’s extremely rewarding,” Barajas said. “For A.J., I would say the same thing. Every time he goes out there and he dominates the way he does, I feel good about myself. I honestly do. I feel great for him, but I feel kind of good about myself. I feel like I’m a part of watching this pitcher mature from a No. 4, No. 5 starter to a No.1, 2 starter in almost any rotation in baseball.”

McDonald’s locker in the clubhouse is right next to Burnett’s and to the left of Burnett’s is Barajas’ locker. When Burnett described the relationship between McDonald and himself, he smiled and said it started right away in spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Both right-handers are big fishermen.

“Anything of late, that’s all him,” Burnett said. “It’s not us anymore. He’s got to start taking pride in what he’s doing and I think he’s doing that. We helped him out early trying to get him to speed up his rhythm. Just believe in himself. I think he knew he was alright, but wasn’t real sure of himself. He’s taking the ball now and expecting to go deep into games and he’s expecting to get outs. You see that.”

“It’s all about tempo with J-Mac. When he gets the ball and he gets back on the mound, he doesn’t worry about a pitch. And that’s what I tell him, ‘one pitch at a time.’ You don’t know how many times during a game I tell myself that between innings and out on the field. It doesn’t matter where that pitch goes and what they do with it. Got to make another pitch.”

McDonald continues to knock down challenges in 2012. Coming off a year where he finished with a 4.21 ERA over 31 starts, the right-hander struggled to pitch past the seventh inning. He did so just twice last season. However, this year, McDonald has pitched at least seven already six times. It was after having a sit down conversation with Barajas that McDonald realize that he needed to be that guy.

During the seventh inning of what turned into his first career complete game, McDonald said he really wanted to finish the game.

“As soon as I got to the seventh, that just went to my brain the whole time,” McDonald said. “I kind of really wanted that. And I could see that [Barajas] wanted me to finish the game. All my teammates wanted me to finish the game. I finally believe in myself that I could finish the game. When I got out there, it felt like it was the first inning all over again.”

It was after his six inning start in Cleveland, the outing prior to his complete game, that Barajas sat down to talk with McDonald. The right-hander was smiling after throwing 101 pitches over six frames. Barajas wanted him to go back out there for another, and didn’t want him to be content with just six.

“After [five] innings, [pitching coach] Ray [Searage] and [Manager] Clint [Hurdle] came up to me and said, ‘Hey. How’s he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s fine. He’s not locating, and his curveball hasn’t been great but he’s throwing fastballs in 3-1, 2-0 counts and these guys aren’t squaring it up. They’re late on it.’ I’m like, ‘he’s fine.’ They went over and talked to him and they sent him back out there for another inning. In that inning, he threw maybe eight pitches. I wanted him to go back out there.”

“Once I got into the dugout, I looked over at J-Mac even before the coaches were talking to him he was smiling and it almost seemed like he was satisfied. Like, Okay. I’m done kind of thing. What I saw in that inning was this guy still has the stuff. There’s no reason for him to come out of the game. After the game I told him I wanted him to go back out there. Keep the game face on. Want to go out there, want to be the seven, eight inning guy instead of the five, six inning guy. Those are the guys that people talk about. Those are the elite pitchers. They pitch deep into the game.”

“After the complete game, he came up to me and said, ‘Hey. I thought about you at the end of the game. My head was where I need to be.’ It was nice for him to say that and for me to know that he’s listening to what I’m saying.”

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