Figuring James McDonald out is not easy. McDonald was so bad on Monday that it seemed like either a trip to the disabled list or removal from the rotation was unavoidable. On Monday, his fastball averaged a little over 90 mph and he never hit 92. His curveball seemed flat, and he got one swinging strike all night. Tonight, he was an entirely different pitcher. He still battled some command issues, but his four walks were more than offset by nine strikeouts. His fastball was much better, averaging about 91.5 mph and topping out at 94. His curveball was ridiculous and when the Braves weren't flailing after it, they were frozen in place by it. He even worked in nine sliders, by PitchFX's count, and I think some of his early strikeouts were on the slider. He looked like James McDonald -- a little wild, but with good enough stuff to overwhelm that problem.
It's worth noting that he got some help from his fielders tonight, particularly in the fifth inning. To open the inning, BJ Upton lashed what looked like a home run to left field, but Starling Marte made what had've been the most non-chalant homer-robbing catch in baseball history. He tracked it to the wall, stood in front of the short wall in left, put his glove up, and pulled the ball in like it was a routine flyout 30 feet in front of the fence. After McDonald walked Jason Heyward, Justin Upton sent a ball to right field that looked like it was going over Jose Tabata's head, but Tabata made a nice, leaping grab of the ball at the warning track.
Of course, McDonald's stellar effort would've been wasted if the Pirates didn't become the first team to solve the Paul Maholm problem in 2013. After being shut out by Maholm for five innings, Starling Marte drew a leadoff walk (and it shouldn't be understated how nice it was to see Marte get on base twice and only strikeout once after his nightmarish game on Thursday) and scored on Andrew McCutchen's double. That was immediately followed by Gaby Sanchez re-capturing some of his Grapefruit League magic with a two-run homer to dead center that gave Tony Watson and Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli all the runs they'd need to close this one out.
The Pirates have dealt the Braves as many losses in the last two nights as they had in the entire season prior. They've ensured a split against the Braves and a winning reecord in this difficult homestand against the Reds, Cardinals, and Braves. It's hard to overstate just how fun the Pirates have been to watch for the last two weeks.