Photo by Mark Olson
James McDonald has struggled the second half of the season. The McDonald that Pittsburgh saw in the first half of the season was impressive. He entered the break with just a 2.37 ERA and looked to be the club’s ace of the staff. His evolution drew so much attention that some were surprised he wasn’t chosen to pitch in the All-Star game for the National League. But the version that has been on the bump since the break has been nothing of what we’ve seen prior.
The numbers are alarming. After getting shelled for a season-high seven earned runs on Friday night at PNC Park — a place where he’s excelled for just a 2.15 ERA over 11 starts prior — McDonald has now allowed more runs (30) over 31.0 innings in the second half, than he did combined in the first part of the season; 29 earned over 110.0 innings. His 10 earned in the month of August so far is more than he allowed in all of May (6).
“If I could, I would have turned it around after the first one, a long time ago,” McDonald said of his second half struggles. “This is something that a lot of players don’t want to go through but they have to sometimes. I learn myself, learn how to get myself back in tune. It’s taken a lot longer than I want, but I’ve just got to keep grinding.”
McDonald looked like he had figured it out his last trip to the mound on Saturday in Cincinnati. He allowed three earned over six innings. After allowing two runs in the first and a pair (one earned) in the third, McDonald retired 10 of his final 11 batters in the no-decision. The right-hander’s final three frames helped him rebuild his confidence that he has struggled with during the rough stretch.
“It’s commitment and confidence and execution,” Hurdle said. “Not wondering or hoping. Trusting the catcher, then just setting up and going. The commitment level has got to be significant. You want to just get him in that routine where he’s repeating the delivery and then letting the ball go. They’re not guiding it, they’re not aiming it, they’re not pushing it. I think we did see a mark improvement the last outing — especially the last three innings.”
The first inning has been a bit of a taboo for McDonald since the All-Star Break. It took just the second pitch of the game before McDonald gave up a blast to right field. Alexi Amarista took a 1-0 fastball to leadoff the game. After getting two groundouts, McDonald allowed a two-out single to left field. The right-hander was able to get Yonder Alonso to fly out to left to leave the runner stranded. The 27-year-old has now allowed 10 runs in the first inning over his last six starts.
McDonald settled in and retired 11 straight batters over his next three-plus frames. Cameron Maybin drew the first walk of the game from McDonald to snap the streak, and John Baker followed with a single to right field. But that is where the wheels came off for the right-hander.
In the first half of the season, McDonald was able to battle and work himself out of jams. But hit after hit from the Padres bats sent McDonald to the showers early.
“After the first inning, he retired 10 in a row,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Pretty quickly, pretty efficiently. And then it seemed like the breaking ball left him to some degree, and then the fastball just wasn’t getting where he wanted it. I think that complicated things for him in that inning.”
Both runners scored after Padres sent pinch-hitter Jesus Guzman to the plate, who ripped a double off the wall in right center field to plate a pair. The wheels continued to turn as the third straight hit from McDonald drove in the third run of the inning. A three-run blast from Chase Headley on a 1-1 pitch ended McDonald’s outing early.
“There’s a risk and a reward in those decisions, and those fall on the Manager’s shoulders,” Hurdle said of leaving McDonald in to battle through it. “I figured, 10 in a row, if we can challenge him, he can put a foot down, he can walk out of this with a positive building block. By yanking him now, it leaves doubt. The move I made did not work. That falls on me. We obviously thought he could get through it, or we wouldn’t have left him in.”
“I couldn’t tell you [what happened],” McDonald said. “A seven run lead and to go out and do that when my guys are playing, I put this loss on me. That’s unacceptable. That shouldn’t happen. I let those guys down today. Nobody feels worse than me right now. Just got to stay focused, go out and compete my next start.”
“It was a quality first four innings, but the starting pitchers job is not to go four innings. You got to get hungry and get that job done. I didn’t do that. I let the team down big time.”
Overall, McDonald allowed seven runs on seven hits over 4.1 innings. He walked one and struck out four while throwing 87 pitches, 56 for strikes.
Rotation Moving to Six Men
Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said after the game that they will slide Kevin Correia into the rotation moving forward and will currently go with a six-man rotation.
They stack up as follows: A.J. Burnett on Saturday, Erik Bedard Sunday, Jeff Karstens Monday, Kevin Correia Tuesday, Wandy Rodriguez Wednesday and McDonald Thursday.
Lefty Jeff Locke, who made his season debut last night, still remains with the club. Hurdle said he was not available in relief today due to the 2.1 innings he tossed and will be reevaluated on Saturday.
Snider Belts First Bucco Dinger and Continues Hot Bat
Since the Pirates acquired Travis Snider from Toronto, the outfielder has been swinging a hot bat with the club. Snider has gone 11-for-31 (.355 avg) with a homer, one double and 5 RBI over 10 games since becoming a Bucco. And on Friday was able to pick up his first long ball.
“I learned a lot in the last five or six years, but coming into this, the mindset that I work very hard to maintain is taking things one day at a time,” Snider said. “Obviously went through some things there, but you turn the page. I’m looking forward to the new chapter, coming out and playing hard everyday trying to help this team win.”
The 24-year-old took a 1-2 changeup from the San Diego Padres Edison Volquez in the fifth inning for a three-run shot to right center field. It marked his first as a Pirate and fourth in the big leagues this season.
The home run came in part of a tough loss, however, for the club. After seeing a 7-1 lead over the Padres, their hearts were crushed after McDonald gave up a six run fifth and Tony Watson gave up the go-ahead two-run homer.
“Snider’s big swing of the bat was very good to see,” Hurdle said.
“It’s not about personal accomplishments for me,” Snider said when asked about hitting his first home run with Pittsburgh. “I’ve hit home runs before in the big leagues. It’s nice to contribute offensively in a tight game but at the end of the day, we’re looking for a win and not personal accomplishments.”
“We’ve got to keep picking each other up and get ready for tomorrow, put this one behind us…You wake up tomorrow, you come to the field and you go through your routine, get ready to play. You win games, you lose games. Each and everyday you’ve got to come with the right head on your shoulders ready to compete.”
“You find a way to claw back because that speaks to the character of your club, it speaks to the mental toughness of your club and that’s what we’ll do,” Hurdle said. “They don’t call August the dog days, there’s dog fights. And we’ve had five days of hard play. We’ve just got to keep battling and holding together and work through this together because the guys in that clubhouse, they’re not going to back down.”
Is Scoreboard Watching a Distraction?
The Pirates entered game action just 2.5 games back from the first place Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. They also hold the second Wild Card spot in the NL, with a 2.5 cushion over St. Louis. With about 50 games remaining in the regular season, the question was brought up to Manager Clint Hurdle during his pregame press conference — is scoreboard watching a distraction?
Should the Pirates be just concentrating on their own game instead of the division races? Can too much scoreboard watching become a distraction?
“I think there’s some substance to that,” Hurdle said. “We really need to focus to what we can control — our attitude, our effort and our execution. Those are the things that we can control to a certain degree. We’ve got to be focused on our job. There’s too many moving parts out there. It doesn’t make much sense to me to get emotionally tied to anything other than what you need to be emotionally tied to. And that’s your individual responsibility aimed towards the collective game of the club. I do believe that’s where our guys are.”
At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the scoreboard is big and very visible. The Roberto Clemente wall in right field showcases all the scores in action, making it easy for the players to take a glance between innings or downtime.
“You can’t disassociate yourself from the scoreboard,” Hurdle said. “They’re big and they’re out there. And there’s times through the game where you can catch yourself glancing at them. We continue to talk about staying focused on our game pitch by pitch, inning by inning.”
Cruz Takes Step Forward in Rehab Outing
Juan Cruz made his second rehab start on Thursday at Double-A Altoona, and this time was able to take a step forward. His last time out, the right-hander allowed three straight one-out singles before being chased from the game having thrown 25 pitches. Cruz said after the outing that it was the first time he had pitched in a while and admitted to being just a little rusty.
On Thursday, Cruz allowed just one hit and a strikeout over a scoreless frame for the Curve. Cruz needed just 13 pitches this time out, and could be not too far from rejoining the club.
“He had a good outing last night,” Hurdle said. “A little better mix of his pitches, it wasn’t the volume. But he was more efficient so he did throw his breaking ball, changeup. Fastball velocity was increased at 93-95. It was another good step forward for him and we’ll see how he feels today, and we’ll huddle back up tomorrow.”
Cruz suffered from right shoulder inflammation, which forced him on the 15-day disabled list on July 21 (retroactive to the 18th).