The mistakes stood out for James McDonald Tuesday night, but the signs pointed in the right direction.
Lack of command at precisely the wrong time hurt, as did fastballs left over the plate. The Pirates offense struggled for the second consecutive game, and the resulting combination was a second consecutive loss, 5-1 against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
McDonald felt better about the way he pitched Tuesday, even if the results did not reflect it in what proved to be the third consecutive game in which he has struggled.
"I can live with this loss," he said. "I feel like I competed."
McDonald pitched six innings and allowed five runs on five hits, two of them home runs. He walked three, one intentionally, and struck out six. He has allowed at least four earned runs in each of his past three starts.
In that span, he has allowed 15 earned runs and 22 hits in 152/3 innings.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle also felt McDonald's performance improved over his previous outings.
"He was so much better across the board," Hurdle said. "Downhill plane to his fastball, consistent velocity, breaking ball was better, slider was better. Couple pitches he'd like to have back.
"That's the James we saw the first half of the season."
Two of those previous starts were on the road in Milwaukee and Colorado, both tough pitchers' parks. At home this season, though, McDonald (10-4) had a 1.69 ERA.
"I had pretty decent command," McDonald said. "They just hit the ball when they had to."
The only run the Pirates managed off Cubs starter Paul Maholm (9-6) came on Garrett Jones' solo home run in the fourth. They have scored one combined run in the past two games.
Maholm pitched eight innings and allowed one run on four hits, striking out seven. He had pitched at least six innings in his past four starts and allowed one or fewer runs in each of them.
"I looked at the guy who pitched [Monday] night [Jeff Samardzija] and talked to a couple people, it just happened to be the best game he pitched all year," Hurdle said.
"Paul had four consecutive [starts] with six innings and one run. He pitched very effectively [Tuesday night]. What it does remind you of is this isn't going to be easy."
McDonald left a fastball up and over the middle of the plate to Starlin Castro, the second batter of the game. Castro capitalized, hitting his ninth home run to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
McDonald left another fastball up to Geovany Soto in the second, but Soto's long fly ball died just shy of the wall in center. After the home run from Castro, McDonald retired 12 consecutive batters.
Jones tied the score in the fourth with his 14th home run and first this season against a left-hander. He had not homered against a left-hander since Aug. 16, 2011, when he did it against the St. Louis Cardinals' Arthur Rhodes.
McDonald's lack of control hurt in the fifth. He walked Soto, then got Darwin Barney to line out. He intentionally walked Luis Valbuena to reach Maholm, but walked Maholm on four pitches to load the bases. David DeJesus then doubled off the wall in right, scoring two runs and putting the Cubs up, 3-1.
Anthony Rizzo singled in the sixth before Alfonso Soriano hit his 19th homer to make it 5-1.
McDonald has allowed 12 home runs in 1252/3 innings this season.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published July 25, 2012 4:00 AM