CHICAGO -- James McDonald continued his second-half decline Friday, and in recent starts the trend has worsened. Not only has the performance dipped, but the innings pitched has as well.
The Pirates lost their seventh consecutive game, a 7-4 defeat against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. They are one game over .500, at 72-71.
The game marked the first in a stretch of 20 games in 20 days through the end of the season Oct. 3. For the Pirates to finish with a winning season, they must go 10-9 the rest of the way.
McDonald failed to finish the fourth inning for the second time in his past three outings. He needed 83 pitches, 43 strikes, to complete 32/3 innings and allowed four runs on four walks and five hits.
"I still think it comes down to taking ownership of the position you're in and having that commitment to a pitch," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Complete, total commitment to a pitch, and then not fall back when things aren't going well."
Three walks in the fourth spelled an early exit for McDonald, as Hurdle brought in rookie left-hander Justin Wilson with the bases loaded and two outs to face left-handed Anthony Rizzo.
"You're looking at a man today that, after  pitches, from my vantage point, we left two on in the first, we left two on in the second, they score a run in the third," Hurdle said. "We walk the bases loaded to face the third hitter, we don't really have plus command of any three pitches -- it's a hard place to be."
McDonald said he did not feel comfortable with any of his pitches, but did not allow that to excuse his trouble throwing strikes. He identified control as a separate issue from lack of comfort with his pitches.
"Walks are unacceptable," he said. "I had two outs. I should have got that out and been in the dugout.
"I've pitched plenty of times with no pitches. You still can command the zone."
"There's some ownership of things that have to be taken," Hurdle said. "I think we've all seen James in different modes of focus from time to time."
In his previous start, McDonald (12-8) allowed three runs in 52/3 innings. Before that he gave up eight runs, seven earned, in 22/3 innings.
"We've talked long and hard here about, you have to have ownership of your confidence," Hurdle said. "Nobody should be able to take your confidence from you and you can't let your confidence be a direct correlation of your results of your last game pitched or the last two games you pitched."
Rizzo doubled off Wilson, scoring two runs. Hurdle said he wanted to take advantage of the 169-point gap between Rizzo's average against right-handers and left-handers, but didn't want to use left-hander Tony Watson, one of his better relievers, for one batter in the fourth.
Hurdle then went to Chris Leroux against Alfonso Soriano. Clint Barmes reached Soriano's grounder in the hole, but couldn't handle it, and another run scored, giving the Cubs a 4-0 lead.
The Pirates struggled to solve Cubs rookie starter Chris Rusin, who did not allow a hit until the fifth and gave up two runs on four hits in his fourth major league start. He struck out six without walking a batter in five-plus innings of work.
Rusin (1-2) dominated the Pirates through the first four innings. The only baserunners he allowed were Barmes, who took a fastball off of his left hip in the third, and Starling Marte, who reached on an error in the fourth but was caught stealing when Rusin threw to first after Marte took off.
Gaby Sanchez went 2 for 4 with an RBI and Pedro Alvarez drove in two runs. Andrew McCutchen hit his 27th home run, an opposite-field shot off Manuel Corpas, in the seventh.
Hurdle put in Watson to face the top three hitters in the Cubs order, all left-handers, in the sixth. Watson walked Luis Valbuena, and Jared Hughes replaced Watson after Watson retired Rizzo. Hughes hit Soriano with the first pitch he threw, and Starlin Castro hit a three-run homer on Hughes' second pitch.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published September 15, 2012 4:00 AM