Pirates need McDonald at his best down stretch

Pirates need McDonald at his best down stretch

PITTSBURGH -- Looking at a dwindling schedule, the Pirates obviously do not yet know where it will take them. But here is one thing they do know: They will not get far without right-hander James McDonald being one of their lead guides.

Thus, McDonald's non-decision start on Saturday night -- even in a 4-3 loss to the Cubs -- was viewed through rose-colored glasses, even though he spent all 5 2/3 of his innings in trouble.

Despite the troubles, though, McDonald did not give in. He rationed Chicago to a trio of single-run innings -- the first time in 11 second-half starts he didn't let trouble snowball into a multi-run inning. In two of those starts, McDonald never was in significant jeopardy, twice blanking the Cardinals. In all the others, threats blew up into crooked numbers, helping explain his 6.91 ERA since the All-Star break.

"That was a real good sign, as far as showing how he competed," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He finished things off, so innings didn't get away from him."

McDonald's biggest ally in the clubhouse also considered that a significant sign.

"This is a big turnaround year for [McDonald], and he's gone through some stuff he never went through before," said A.J. Burnett, alluding to dealing with high-profile success and the expectations that brings. "We saw him being pretty consistent that first half, and now he expects to do so well every time. But he has to get back to that world where he can make that next pitch quickly and without any concerns. That's when he's at his best."