Originally written on Pirates Prospects  |  Last updated 11/19/14

Photo by Mark Olson

After getting six days of rest and throwing two sides since his last start on Friday against San Diego, the Pirates were looking for James McDonald to take a big step forward towards getting back on track. The right-hander did just that in St. Louis facing a tough Cardinals lineup, and scattered just two hits over six shutout frames.

“This was a huge step forward for us. We’re going to need him to get something done this year,” Manager Clint Hurdle said.

McDonald worked fast, and looked sharp in 24th start of the season. He had allowed at least four runs in each of his six starts prior, and was able to toss his best outing in the second half of the season.

Between starts, McDonald was able to reap the benefits of a second side session. The righty said that rhythm, timing and execution were some focuses that he worked on with the extra time off. He worked with pitching coach Ray Searage, who said that he felt his second side was good and was on track.

McDonald was aggressive in a big game against St.Louis, who are now two games back of the Pirates for the second seat in the Wild Card spot. The right-hander threw a lot of first pitch strikes, and gained back his confidence, which he lost after posting an 8.71 ERA over his last six starts prior to Friday night.

“We’ve been encouraging that type of attitude here for a while,” Hurdle said. “He’s aware of that. To go out and do it is a different thing. He had two small stretches in his last two games where he pitched three consecutive innings. One was the back end of the game in Cincinnati, the other was at home, in the middle, for basically the second, third and fourth inning. It was fresh.”

“[Today] you saw from start to finish. Command, execution and commitment. Good tempo. A heavy assortment of about 30 breaking balls. It was a 50-50 split on sliders and curveballs, and a handful of changeups. Just a real good mix. Michael and Mac followed the game plan extremely well. Hit the spots. Just the tempo. That’s what we need from him. Not always zero runs and two hits. We need that focus and that commitment to pitches. That’s what you saw tonight.”

The first inning has been a struggle for McDonald since the All-Star break. He allowed 10 first-inning runs in his last six starts prior to Friday night in St. Louis. A good sign for McDonald getting back on track was being able to put up a zero in the first.

McDonald fell behind to Jon Jay, and walked him on five pitches to start the game. But the right-hander was able to induce a double play and a grounder to second to end the inning cleanly.

The 28-year-old retired eight batters straight, which included five strikeouts before giving up his first hit of the game. Allen Craig ripped a double to left field with one out in the fourth. The runner was erased off the base paths after McDonald threw a breaking pitch. Michael McKenry blocked the ball and Craig aggressively attempted to take third base, but the catcher made a perfect throw to third and Pedro Alvarez tagged him out for the second out of the frame. Matt Holliday popped out to second to end the inning.

McDonald gave up his second and only other hit in the fifth inning. With one out, McDonald allowed David Freese to pick up a single on a line drive to right field. After retiring his next batter for the second out, McDonald worked himself into a jam by walking Tony Cruz. But he left both runners stranded when Furcal got caught looking for the second time in as many at-bats to end the inning.

In his final inning of work, McDonald walked Craig on four straight balls with two outs in the sixth. It marked his third free pass of the outing. But McDonald whiffed Holliday swinging on a slider to end the frame.

Overall, McDonald tossed six scoreless, allowing just two hits and walked three while striking out seven. McDonald threw 87 pitches, 54 strikes.

“I just think the routines that he worked with on the side [helped],” Hurdle said. “It starts with a thought. I’m going to throw a strike, or I’m going throw for a swing and miss. Not, I hope I’m going to throw it for a strike. We have all been in those situations I think at some area of our life where we hope for things to happen rather than, ‘you know what? Here’s what I need to do.’ Ray did a lot of work. We got some information we added to the work. It’s a cumulative effort, but at the end of the night, the young man’s got to go out and pitch. And he’s pitching against a very good ball club on the road. That’s an impressive outing.”


Walker Does Light Work at Busch Stadium 

Neil Walker was able to do very light baseball work on Friday in St. Louis, just two days after dislocating his right pinky finger on a play at PNC Park.

Walker was able to play catch and throw, but the swelling was still there. That will be the biggest step for Walker and being able to progress through the injury — getting the swelling out.

The second baseman continues to ice the finger, and experimented with a splint. The next step for Walker will be taking ground balls. There is still no timetable on a return, but Walker remains optimistic.


Hurdle Believes Mercer Can be Future Shortstop

With Walker still sidelined, Jordy Mercer made his second straight start at second base. On Thursday, the rookie made his Major League debut at that position, and Manager Clint Hurdle said he wanted to see Mercer at second right now, using Josh Harrison if needed off the bench.

Mercer is primarily a shortstop, but his versatility and solid glove allows him to play second and third base as well. The 24-year-old, who was the Pirates third round pick in 2008, has just 23 games under his belt in the big leagues, but Hurdle believes with some experience can be their shortstop down the road.

“I actually think that Jordy has room for improvement,” Hurdle said. “I think getting to know him now, from spring training until this point in time of the season, the reasons why we drafted him when we did, the reasons he’s had success throughout the minor leagues. You’re seeing signs of that. You’re seeing some defensive presence. You’re seeing enough arm strength to play shortstop. You’re seeing the ball handling ability. You see a guy at the plate that gets in the box and competes. There’s some barrel to the ball contact, power, gap power that can show up. I have every optimism that he can be a guy that we can be looking at down the road to be a Major League shortstop here in Pittsburgh.”


Pirates Get Two Runs Off Interesting Inning

The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t pick up an RBI on the night, but it turned out they didn’t need to after an interesting fourth inning.

In a scoreless game, the Pirates started a rally off Cardinals’ Jake Westbrook after Travis Snider drew a leadoff walk. Back-to-back singles followed from Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones to load the bases up with no outs. The Cardinals right-hander threw a wild pitch during the at-bat with McKenry, which allowed Snider to run home and slide in safely. McKenry picked up the third straight knock with an infield single to reload the bases. The second and only other run scored from the Pirates came after catcher Cruz missed a changeup from Westbrook, which allowed McCutchen to score from third base.

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