The two friends shared a moment Thursday afternoon in the Pirates clubhouse, a few quiet words, a fist bump, half an embrace and pats on the back. Staff ace A.J. Burnett was pleased with how James McDonald pitched against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park because he knows how critical McDonald will be to any success the team has this season. McDonald, though taking the brutal loss in a 3-2 defeat, was pleased that Burnett was pleased.
"He told me he saw a big difference in my mound presence," McDonald said. "That means a lot coming from him because he's the first guy to get on me when he sees me doing something wrong. That's why he's such a good friend and why he means so much to our pitching staff."
There was plenty to like about McDonald's outing. The only thing he did wrong was allow a one-out single up the middle to pitcher Travis Wood in the third inning. Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro made McDonald pay dearly moments later with a two-out, RBI single to center field for a 1-0 lead.
That was the only run and those were the only hits that McDonald gave up in seven innings. He walked just two batters. Reliever Jared Hughes served up a two-run home run to right fielder Nate Schierholtz in the ninth as the Cubs bumped their lead to 3-0. That was too much for the Pirates hitters, who scored twice in their half of the ninth but generally did little as the team lost the season-opening series, two games to one.
"It's not frustrating," McDonald said of a Pirates offense that batted .144 in the three games, scored a total of six runs, had only four doubles, didn't hit a home run and struck out 25 times. Cleanup man Pedro Alvarez, who went 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position, struck out on three pitches with no outs in the ninth inning Thursday with the tying run at third base and the winning run at first.
"Those guys play hard behind me every day," McDonald said. "It's only a matter of time until we start scoring four or five runs a game ... 12 runs. You'll see us put up runs soon."
As you might guess, McDonald also felt no anger toward Hughes.
"You'll see plenty of times when those guys pick me up," McDonald said.
McDonald didn't need to beat up Hughes or the hitters. Those guys felt plenty bad about not doing more to get McDonald a much-deserved win. They knew they wasted a pitching jewel.
"That was [McDonald] at his best," said second baseman Neil Walker, who batted after Alvarez's strikeout and grounded into a game-ending double play.
"We couldn't have hoped for much more than that," manager Clint Hurdle said of McDonald's performance.
McDonald needed this kind of start. He was terrible in the second half of last season and pitched his way out of the rotation. No one was more responsible for the Pirates' historic second-half collapse, a 16-36 finish after a 63-47 start through Aug. 8. That's not being harsh. That's just being truthful. Of course, no one was more responsible than McDonald for the team's first-half success. He could have, maybe even should have, made the National League All-Star team.
"This was good for my confidence," McDonald said. "It gives me some good momentum going into my next start. I was happy with the way I competed. Every pitch meant something to me. I went right after them and did OK."
McDonald proved in the early months last season that he is capable of this kind of dominance. But can he do it consistently? Can he do it all season?
I believe McDonald is the biggest key to the Pirates' season, at least the biggest pitching key. The team knows what it's going to get most games from Burnett, who was good for 52/3 innings in taking a 3-1 loss to the Cubs on opening day Monday. It generally knows what it's going to get from Wandy Rodriguez, who was outstanding for 62/3 innings in getting a 3-0 win Wednesday night. But who knows about McDonald? Jonathan Sanchez, who is scheduled to start tonight in Los Angeles against the Dodgers' $147 million man Zack Greinke in what looks like a colossal mismatch? Jeff Locke, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Dodgers? Can that back end of the rotation deliver until help comes in May and June from Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and/or Gerrit Cole?
That uncertainty is why the prediction here for the Pirates is 74 wins. They blew a big chance Thursday to get one against a really bad Cubs team, but all was not lost. The way McDonald pitched, there's at least hope there might be a few more opportunities in the days ahead.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.