PITTSBURGH -- Pirates right-hander James McDonald is using the extra time given him between starts to regain his command. Not of his pitches, but of himself. "I have to get back to that frame of mind I had earlier in the season," said McDonald, who will have had six days to work on it before he takes the mound Friday in St. Louis. "Damage control -- I have to make adjustments to what [opposing hitters] are trying to do to me." A six-run San Diego rally in the fifth inning Friday, wiping out his 7-1 lead, was the latest, quickest evidence of McDonald's frustrating regression.
In a sport as mental as baseball, drift can be an ally or a foe. In the first couple months of the season, McDonald's emergence as an ace was underscored by his newfound ability to calmly pitch out of trouble. His recent woes are due to misplacement of that ability. Since the All-Star break, McDonald has been a big-inning victim: In six starts, he has allowed multiple runs in an inning 10 times; in 17 first-half starts, he had only six multiple-run innings, never more than three runs (once). There doubtless is also a physical element to the slump. McDonald has allowed more homers in 31 innings since the break (eight) than in 110 frames prior to it (seven). The long season gets to everybody, at different levels. However, McDonald conceded the key to his turnaround is regaining his shutdown instinct of earlier this season, when his body language and stuff both delivered the same message to batters when trouble brewed: You're the one on the ropes, not me.