McDonald got his turnaround season off to a sensational start, pitching two-hit ball for seven innings Thursday afternoon at PNC Park, where he usually shines, against the Cubs, who usually eclipse him.
His reward, alas, was a 3-2 defeat. So even as his career ERA in PNC Park went down to 2.93, so did his record against the Cubbies, to 0-4.
"Yeah, it's bittersweet," admitted McDonald, who allowed one of those runs in his seven innings. "At the end of the day, you're biting your tongue, saying, 'Man, we came that close.' We had 'em in the ninth."
They had a little more ground to cover in the bottom of the ninth after Nate Schierholtz had expanded the Cubs' lead with a two-run homer off Jared Hughes in the top of the inning.
The Bucs couldn't quite finish off a furious ninth-inning comeback against Cubs closer Carlos Marmol.
Trailing, 3-0, Starling Marte singled to lead off against Marmol for Pittsburgh's second hit of the game. Marmol, who was pulled in the ninth on Monday, then walked Russell Martin. Andrew McCutchen hit an RBI single to make it 3-1 and prompt a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio. Gaby Sanchez then singled to right, driving in Martin. One out later, Neil Walker hit into a game-ending double play.
"Their closer has been struggling," Martin said, "as he's known to when things get a little tough around him. We were one good swing from taking that game away."
So McDonald picked the wrong way to take after his clubhouse mentor, A.J. Burnett: Sharing his run deficiency.
Having a lot to do with that, obviously, was Travis Wood. The Chicago lefty allowed only one hit -- a third-inning double by Clint Barmes -- in six innings, walking two and fanning four.
Burnett had departed Monday's Opening Day game trailing, 3-0, and the Pirates have tallied a total of 12 runs in his 11 losses since he joined the team. Now here was McDonald, lights-out against a team he has never beaten, with an incoming career ERA of 5.71 against them, and getting nothing in return but sympathy.
"The Cubs, I've always had a problem with," McDonald acknowledged. "So, from that standpoint, I was happy. I just went straight at them, and it worked out."
A primary preseason focus of the right-hander was refining his repertoire by varying the speeds of his existing pitches, to mess with batters' timing. McDonald calls the ability to do that "a weapon," and he brandished it Thursday. His pitches spanned from 72-91 mph, nearly the 20-mph gap that manager Clint Hurdle, discussing the same knack of Cubs Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija, had termed "a challenge offensively to cover."
"J-Mac was very, very, very good today. I'm happy for him individually. He was able to go out and do what we believed he was able to do," said Hurdle.
Given the long baseball season rife with consequences, did this type of loss perhaps come with even more encouragement than would've, say, a 10-8 win for a shaky McDonald?
"In the big picture, you want your team to win," Hurdle smiled. "But if you can't win ... for James McDonald to go out and pitch seven innings like that, allow one run -- we couldn't have hoped for much more."
The Cubs essentially knocked McDonald out of the rotation last season, sealing his second-half downfall by chasing him in the fourth inning of a Sept. 14 start that became his last of the season.
This time, he finished off a pretty decent relay among the Pirates' top three starters: Wandy Rodriguez, Burnett and McDonald threw 19 1/3 collective innings against the Cubs, allowing 10 hits and six runs (2.79 ERA), with four walks and 20 strikeouts.
"Our arms are there, we're solid," Martin said. "Once our offense gets rolling, we're going to be tough to beat."
Thursday, the Cubbies had to make the most of the least, netting a run out of their only hits off McDonald. Wood himself started it with a one-out single in the third, and he advanced on David DeJesus' grounder before scoring on another single by Starlin Castro.
Then McDonald put his foot down. He retired 13 of the last 14 men he faced, the only interruption being a seventh-inning walk to Schierholtz, one of two issued by McDonald, who struck out four.
But he was already down, 1-0, and would not get back up.