Bucs witnessing turning point for McDonald
Dating back to April 25, right-hander consistently dominant
PITTSBURGH -- The moment it all came together for James McDonald is eerily identifiable. These things are supposed to be more subtle, not this lucid, requiring wider hindsight.But he threw his switch, along with generally unhittable pitches, on April 25, in the first game of a doubleheader against Colorado at PNC Park. By the end of the third inning, he had thrown only 40 pitches and the Rockies had no hits. By the end of the fourth, he'd added only 10 pitches and a fourth strikeout. At the end of a similarly quick fifth, shortstop Clint Barmes went back into the Pirates' dugout and called out to no one in particular: "Wow. Look at this pace. Can you believe it's the same guy out there?" It was the same guy, but not the same pitcher. This McDonald continued working fast, with utmost confidence in his pitches and a body language that told everyone -- especially the men entering the batter's box minutes before leaving it futilely -- "This is mine. I'm in charge." McDonald was in charge that day -- he allowed Colorado only one hit in seven innings, a weak infield roller by Troy Tulowitzki leading off the seventh -- and has stayed in charge since. That start began an ongoing stretch of six in which he has averaged seven innings, allowed 26 hits and 10 runs (2.16 ERA) and fanned 52, at least seven in each game. Only one other Pittsburgh pitcher has struck out seven-plus in six consecutive starts: Bob Veale, the bespectacled and feared tall lefty, in 1965. "I'm pleased, but I also don't want to be happy or satisfied with what I'm doing. Rather than dwell on my last start, good or bad, I just prepare for the next," McDonald said. "It feels good to do good. But I always feel there's room to get better." If he gets to that room, heaven help National League hitters. McDonald's sudden, dramatic segue from erratic to consistently dominant has easily been the biggest eye-opener of a season the Bucs have otherwise spent squinting. "J-Mac is starting to emerge as legit," said pitching coach, Ray Searage.
In the simplest terms, following Searage's constant mantra has propelled McDonald: "Get ahead with first-pitch strikes, stay ahead and if you get two strikes, put them away."General manager Neal Huntington's take on the same idea: "He's trying to get as many quick outs as can, but once he gets to two strikes, he's burying people. It's been fun to watch." It has also been startlingly different from the McDonald the Pirates watched in 2010-11. Then, too, he could unfurl a gem, but would rarely follow it up. He was tentative and threats got the best of him, rather than bring out the best in him. He had a career mark of 18-20 before this breakthrough. Such things happen to pitchers. The timelines of many elite ones have those obvious "on" switches, that career junction where it falls into place. Chris Carpenter was a sub-.500 hurler with an ERA approaching 5.00 until his seventh season. Roy Halladay was 18-17 with a 4.95 ERA, through his first four seasons. Part of the Sandy Koufax legend is his 36-40 record until he turned 25. And so on. Pinpointing McDonald's catharsis is easy. On April 21, rushed into the breach earlier than expected because of injury to another pitcher, A.J. Burnett made his first start for the Pirates. That April 25 corner-turner was McDonald's first start with Burnett on the jury. When manager Clint Hurdle says the veteran Burnett compounds his value to the team by "modeling behavior for other pitchers with his poise and mound presence," this is what he is talking about. Burnett lost a game, the worst in his career, but won numerous admirers when he gave the Cardinals 12 runs in 2 2/3 innings on May 2.
"From that to his best," Hurdle said, "you couldn't tell what's going on by his mound presence."McDonald, the guy with the transparent body language, noticed. But beyond by example, Burnett has also led with words. "We've talked," Burnett said. "We talk on the bench all the time. Me, [Kevin] Correia and [Erik] Bedard -- and one day we noticed how J-Mac would slow down. So I told him, 'Hey, pick it up a little bit.' And he picked up the pace the very next game. "Now his demeanor and tempo speak for themselves. His mound presence, how sure he is of himself now that he's seen what he can do. He just gets the ball back and is ready to throw the next pitch. And he now has confidence in all his pitches." McDonald's 12-to-6 curve has been unhittable. Set up by the mid-90s heater, it makes a discouraging combination. McDonald now understands that whatever the game situation, those physical tools now have the batter on the defensive. The perfect blend of physical and mental weaponry. "I took advice A.J. and Rod [Barajas] told me, regardless if it was good or bad or something I didn't want to hear, and it made me a better pitcher immediately," McDonald said. "It's helped me tremendously. I have a different mind frame going into the game now. The attitude I take to the mound from the first inning -- my body language. "I'm confident in how I prepared for that start. When I step on the mound, I'm ready to compete." When he faces the Reds on Monday in PNC Park, McDonald will have the opportunity to stretch his overpowering streak into a territory no Pittsburgh pitcher has reached, which could make Memorial Day doubly memorable. "Right now, he's pretty impressive," said Burnett, and when other guys in uniform start talking like that about you, well .... that's pretty impressive.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.