Spring Training: Pirates, McDonald in search of J-Mac The Good
February 24, 2013 5:00 AM
Pirates starter James McDonald needs to exorcise the struggles that haunted him in the second half of 2012.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pitchers need short memories, but sometimes longer ones help, too.
James McDonald knows what happened in the second half of 2012. He remembers manager Clint Hurdle removing him from the starting rotation. But he also remembers the first three months of the season, when he pitched like the ace of the staff.
"You got to look at both sides of the season and remember the things you did well," McDonald said. "Remember, that was you. Take the good with the bad."
McDonald's path to finding his first-half success begins today, when he takes the mound against the Atlanta Braves at McKechnie Field for his first outing in Grapefruit League play. In reality, it probably began before last season ended and continued during the offseason.
McDonald pitched 61 innings after the All-Star break in 2012. He walked 38 batters, gave up 14 home runs and allowed a .292 opponent batting average. After McDonald allowed four runs and four walks in 32/3 innings to the Chicago Cubs Sept. 14, Hurdle moved him to the bullpen.
"That was you when you were bad," McDonald said. "Why were you bad? What can you do to get better? What could you do more consistent?
When Hurdle named A.J. Burnett his opening-day starter earlier this week, he pegged Wandy Rodriguez as the man who would start the second game. He said he had not planned beyond that point, indicating that where McDonald pitches in the rotation is not guaranteed.
That's quite a shift after McDonald's All-Star caliber first half last season. McDonald struck out 100 batters and walked 31 in 110 innings and had a 2.37 ERA. He pitched seven one-hit innings against the Colorado Rockies April 25 and finished the first half with consecutive seven-inning outings, allowing a combined three runs.
"When you pitch well, it's easy," he said. "You don't think about nothing, go out there and have fun, it's easy. But, when it's bad, what can I do to get back into being good?"
Sometimes in an attempt to improve, McDonald tried to make his pitches better than they were.
Throw harder. Make the curveball break more.That didn't help.
"Just be a little more consistent, maybe even back off a little bit rather than try and turn on," McDonald said. "I think those things will help me this year when I'm starting to go bad. Try to back off a little bit, step back, slow things down."
Last year, McDonald said, he worried too much about base-runners to the point that it distracted him from throwing a good pitch. Separating the two mentally is a goal this spring, as is improving out of the stretch.
"He's got some emphasis on just shortening up, tightening up his delivery and release time, holding the ball," Hurdle said.
McDonald's fastball touches 94 miles per hour and generally sits in the low 90s. He throws a good slider and mid-70s curveball that can freeze batters when he has it working. But he started paying attention, he said, to pitchers who consistently retire batters despite a lack of exceptional stuff.
"You see a guy that knows how to pitch, who knows how to set a guy up, and you're like, man, how does he do that?" McDonald said.
"People look at velocity and how nasty his breaking ball is, how good his changeup is. Pitching is more than just stuff to me. I learned that a lot last year. It's good to have stuff, but, if you can pitch, that's way better."
McDonald identified stamina as a focus of his offseason workouts, hoping it translates into longer outings. He often joins Burnett for sunrise sessions in the Pirate City weight room. He was throwing bullpen sessions in January, one of which pitching coach Ray Searage traveled to attend.
He does it all in addition to caring for his two-month-old daughter, Ryan, born the day after Christmas.
"Even when I have a bad day, go home to my daughter, everything's gone," McDonald said. "She's going to love me regardless, bad, good. I think that helps erase things quick."
His family provides him motivation in addition to comfort.
"When I'm on the mound performing, I'm out there thinking, I'm pitching for my little girl and my family now," McDonald said. "So 100 percent every single time regardless, bad or good, I'm going to go 100 percent and give it my all.
"I want my little girl to look at me and know that I was 100 percent, whatever I did. If I worked a 9-to-5 job, that I did that hard. I want her to be proud of something, look at her father and show that this is how you're supposed to work in life. Everything you do, work hard, no matter what it is."
That's another type of long-term memory McDonald finds beneficial.
Jeff Locke pitched three scoreless innings in the Pirates' 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday at Charlotte Sports Park.
Locke, who has a chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation, walked one and struck out one without allowing a hit.
"I got to start the game, so you get back into that starter's routine," Locke said. "I was able to get my stretch and my pregame and everything with the catcher prior to the game."
Manager Clint Hurdle said Locke had 35 to 40 pitches to work with. He threw 32, 19 for strikes. "It was a very good outing for him," Hurdle said.
Outfielder Darren Ford went 2 for 2 with a steal and an RBI, but lost a ball in the sun in center that led to the two Rays runs.
The Pirates will bring right-hander Jose Contreras to camp after agreeing to terms on a minor league contract. Contreras, 41, is recovering from elbow surgery. He struck out 15 in 132/3 innings for Philadelphia last season.