The second half of the 2012 season has been a struggle for James McDonald. The right-hander went into the All-Star break with an impressive 2.37 ERA over 17 starts. He whiffed 100 batters over 110.0 innings while holding opposing hitters to just a.196 average and a 0.97 WHIP. McDonald raised eyes when he was snubbed from the All-Star roster, and Manager Clint Hurdle decided to start the second half of the season as McDonald as the clubs No. 1 starter.
But McDonald since the break hasn’t been the same version on the mound. The 28-year-old has posted an 8.71 ERA over six starts in the second half of the season. McDonald has allowed more runs (30) over 31.0 innings in the second half, than he did combined in the first part of the season; 29 earned over 110.0 innings. His 10 earned in the month of August so far is more than he allowed in all of May (6).
Hurdle has shuffled the rotation a few times, and has even gone with a six-man rotation, which would give McDonald some extra rest to help get him back on track, but the results have been mixed.
Of McDonald’s last six starts, the righty has allowed at least four runs or more while not pitching deeper than six frames. Although the numbers are alarming, McDonald hasn’t struggled the entire outing. It’s been just a few bad pitches that has hurt him, or caused him to work into a big inning that he hasn’t been able to battle through unscathed.
“It’s not so much pitch selection, it’s execution of that pitch and locating that pitch on where you got to go with it and stuff,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “That’s what we’ve been mis-firing every now and then, but they’ve been in key situations. Get him focused and just concentrate and focus on the execution of the pitch. Not how hard you’re going to throw it or sharp the break is going to be. Just execute the pitch.”
The last trip to the mound on Friday against San Diego was evidence of that.
McDonald allowed a solo-home run to the first batter of the game, then went on to retire his next 11 straight. The fifth inning, the right-hander worked himself into a jam that he was unable to escape. A two-run double connected off McDonald, then when it seemed like he was going to put a foot down and keep the team in the game, the Padres Chase Headley launched a three-run homer to end McDonald’s outing after just 4.1 frames.
“I just got to keep focused throughout the entire start,” McDonald said. “I can’t lose focus. That one pitch might be a game changer. Just really try to keep focused on every pitch one pitch at a time, one batter at a time. Don’t try to get ahead of myself.”
To get McDonald back on track, Hurdle decided to bump him in the rotation to make his start on Friday in St. Louis, giving McDonald the opportunity to throw an extra side. Instead of skipping a start, the club decided that McDonald would benefit from an extra side. The right-hander can work on tweaks in the first side, then see how the results take hold in the second one.
“The second one was pretty good,” Searage said. “He’s right on track. We’ll see what Friday brings.”
“It all depends on the individual and the circumstances on what he’s working through,” Hurdle said of the benefits. “I think with him, it’s getting the ball, committing to the pitch and firing right through it. Complete commitment of execution, no doubt, no reservations, trust and execution. And sometimes we like them to maybe heighten the intensity when they’re out there as well. Sometimes guys will throw 80 percent, 85 percent. Sometimes we just want them to ramp it up and let it go.”
McDonald said keeping rhythm and feel on the mound helps. Between starts, it can seem long before you get back on the bump, but having that extra side allows him to get back quicker rather than if he got just the one side.
“Just a steady flow of his pitches and stuff to get him in rhythm and timing so this way he can feel more comfortable and not have to think about what he’s doing,” Searage said. “Just go out there and do it.”
The Pirates are hoping that McDonald can take what he worked on during his six days off and reap the benefits tonight against the Cardinals.
“Really just stay aggressive and really try to work out of that big inning,” McDonald said. “Last game, I gave up the home run to the first batter, but after that, I settled down. Just came across that one big inning. I’ve got to neutralize that, stop them to keep my team in the game.”
“I feel better. It wasn’t the walks that killed me, so I’m happy about that. Its been just one pitch one inning really. Just focus on every pitch, attack each hitter. Just don’t get ahead of myself and take it from there.”