Pirates' McDonald seeking consistency

Pirates' McDonald seeking consistency

Pirates' McDonald seeking consistency
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The thought of being the first Pirates pitcher this spring to face batters not wearing gold uniforms didn't exactly keep James McDonald up at night.

But it did have him waking up in the morning with that little extra tingle.

"I had the feeling when I woke up, thinking, 'I'm gonna pitch.' There were some butterflies," McDonald said shortly after working the first two innings of the Pirates' 7-1 loss to Toronto in the Grapefruit League opener for both. "To me, I like that. It's exciting, that feeling of anticipation.

"It's good to feel those nerves again, then getting to the mound."

McDonald was sharp in his first inning, retiring the side in order, including a strikeout of Jose Bautista.

Getting back to the mound was a little bit of a problem. In the second, he allowed a pair of hits, albeit a broken-bat single by Edwin Encarnacion preceded a Brett Lawrie two-run double -- on precisely the pitch McDonald intended to make.

"Fastball, down and in. The first couple of starts, I'm going to throw what I know I need to work on, even if I know it's a pitch the hitter can handle," McDonald said. "I still have to get a feel for it.

"I had a good feel for my breaking pitches, and the fastball was really good the first inning. Then I got a little antsy to get back out there. I was rushing a little bit, then I settled back down."

"He was very clean and efficient in the first inning," evaluated manager Clint Hurdle, "and was still throwing good off-speed pitches in the second. He just let his front side get away from him a little bit."

The process of sitting between innings is one of the most practical lessons of Spring Training. The Pirates simulated that during batting practice at Pirate City, but there is nothing like the real thing.

"You have to get your arm used to getting up, sitting down, getting up again," said McDonald, who gave his first outing an overall mark of "good."

"I wanted to throw strikes with all my pitches," he said. "It wasn't me trying to get guys out. Right now it still just feels a little weird, trying to find that rhythm that works."

Finding -- and locking in -- that rhythm is crucial for the 27-year-old right-hander, who often allowed threats to brake his tempo last season.

"That's the one thing that is critical for him," Hurdle acknowledged. "He's got to improve on that from last year, when he gets runners on base. I thought he maintained that pretty well today."

Finding that rhythm has been a constant process -- spring or summer. Hurdle and staff regarded McDonald as the Bucs' most improved pitcher during a 2011 season in which he went 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA in 31 starts. If McDonald finds the consistency to make another similar leap, both he and the rotation he shares will come out of the shadows.

McDonald is a proud member of the Pirates' stable, yet overlooked, rotation. Their starters could be embarking on a clandestine mission. Left-hander Erik Bedard, who steps out from behind the curtain Sunday to make his first spring start, could be an upgrade. As could A.J. Burnett, once he recovers from his eye-orbital fracture.

However, the incumbents remain the foundation. Do you know how many other Major League teams are returning a quartet whose members each made 25-plus starts in 2011?

Five. Except for the Mets, the others are ranked as having some of the top rotations in business: NL Central foes Milwaukee and St. Louis, plus the Giants and the Rays.

The Pittsburgh foursome of McDonald (31), Charlie Morton (29), Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia (26) combined to start 69 percent of last season's games.

"I wouldn't say we're underrated," McDonald said. "We've got good arms with good stuff, and people know that. It's not like we're pushovers.

"When I assess myself, I know there are times when I'm good and times when I'm bad. I need to find that consistency more often. I've gotten to know me well, the things I need to do to become that better pitcher."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.