When James McDonald got back to his locker in the clubhouse after the Pirates' 3-1 victory Saturday at PNC Park, he found a gold crown on his chair.
It wasn't ornate -- or even real, for that matter. It was flimsy and made of paper, probably cost less than a dollar to purchase and pennies to produce.
But the gesture meant much more.
One of McDonald's teammates -- Neil Walker -- had enough confidence in McDonald's ability to win Saturday that he bought every Pirates player the head wear so they could crown their first-half ace at PNC Park.
"King James," Chris Resop said.
Miami Heat star LeBron James might have a ring, but McDonald has the crown.
McDonald sparkled in the victory, striking out 10 without allowing a walk to earn his ninth victory of the season. He surrendered one run and four hits in seven innings.
"I love the no walks and 10 strikeouts," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's just good stuff. That's just major league, top-shelf stuff right there."
McDonald became the first Pirates pitcher since Jason Schmidt Sept. 23, 1996, to strike out 10 or more batters without allowing a walk in at least seven innings, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
It was McDonald's fifth consecutive start after a Pirates loss, and the team is 4-1 in those games. It was his 12th quality start in 17 outings this season, and he heads into the All-Star break with a 2.37 ERA, the best among all Pirates starters.
McDonald was not included on the National League All-Star roster, in part because he pitched Saturday and might not have been available Tuesday.
"He's our All-Star," Resop said.
One reason for McDonald's progress as a pitcher this season is his maturity on the mound, notably his ability to pitch out of jams. But catcher Michael McKenry said McDonald also has shown maturity in his ability to stick with all of his pitches through an outing, even if some are working better than others.
"He hasn't erased any pitch in any start, even if it's not that good," he said.
On Saturday, McKenry said McDonald's changeup was not as effective as it had been. But he continued to use it, as it helped set up his fastball that kept hitters guessing.
"He kept the guys off balance, moving the ball in and out, up and down and back and forth," McKenry said. "That makes it really hard as a hitter."
McDonald also contributed on offense, drawing a walk and singling in his two plate appearances. He scored the Pirates' first run, sprinting home from first on a third-inning double by Walker. Exhausted from the trip -- and the 97-degree first-pitch heat -- McDonald got relief from a 27-minute rain delay that followed two batters later.
"The delay came right on time," McDonald said. "The baseball gods must really like me right now."
Former Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong was the loser for the Giants (46-39), allowing three runs on eight hits in seven innings. He struck out five. Half of his four losses this season came against the Pirates.
McKenry belted his seventh home run of the season in the fourth, extending the Pirates' lead to 2-0. He blasted a 1-1 changeup that Vogelsong left up in the strike zone and parked it in the left-field seats.
The seven home runs ties him with fellow catcher Rod Barajas for fourth most on the team. McKenry has seen increased playing time in recent weeks after Barajas sustained a bone bruise in his left knee.
McKenry finished 2 for 3 with the home run and double.
The Giants cut the Pirates lead in half in the sixth, the first in which they really tested McDonald. Gregor Blanco hit a two-out single to right field, only the Giants' third baserunner of the game. He advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored when Ryan Theriot singled through the middle of the infield to make it 2-1.
McDonald threw 26 pitches in the inning, cramping what had been an efficient game for him up to that point.
The Pirates got a run back in the bottom half of the inning. Andrew McCutchen led off with a single and scored three batters later when Pedro Alvarez cranked a line drive that bounced off the left-field wall for a double.
• Game: Giants vs. Pirates, 1:35 p.m.
• Where: PNC Park.
• TV: Root.pirates
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 8, 2012 4:00 AM