After James McDonald's previous start, when he failed to complete two innings Monday, Michael McKenry gave him a hug.
"You're better than this," McKenry told him.
This week, the Pirates' catchers helped McDonald prove it.
McKenry suggested McDonald increase the intensity of his between-start workouts in order to fight off the sluggishness that had lingered since spring training. After a meeting Saturday with McKenry, Russell Martin and pitching coach Ray Searage, Martin pulled McDonald aside.
"You ever watch your strikeout reel?" Martin asked.
Braves at Pirates, 1:35 p.m., PNC Park.
- TV, radio:
Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7)
RHP Kris Medlen (1-1, 1.42) vs. LHP Jonathan Sanchez (0-2, 12.96).
- Key matchup:
Sanchez vs. Justin Upton, who is 8 for 29 with three doubles and two home runs in his career against Sanchez.
- Hidden stat:
Medlen walked only 23 batters in 138 innings last season.
McDonald then watched video of strikeout after strikeout.
"It worked," he said. "I felt confident out there. Every pitch, everything I did, I felt confident. I trusted everything I did."
That confidence translated into six innings of one-run ball as the Pirates beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-1, Saturday night at PNC Park. McDonald, who spent the week fending off questions about his health, earned the win and improved his record to 2-2.
McDonald said he did more arm exercises after his outing Monday, when he allowed eight runs in 12/3 innings.
He also said he had more energy and more life on his pitches, an improvement over his recent lethargy.
"I started feeling like this a little bit in spring," he said. "I felt a little sluggish. I backed off everything, but it never got better. So I told myself, all right, let's try to go a little harder and see what happens."
McDonald displayed that energy and conviction immediately, striking out the side in the first inning. He pounded his fist into his glove as he walked off the mound after Justin Upton waved weakly at a slider.
He looked like a completely different pitcher than in his previous two outings. His fastball touched 93 mph, though it still sat mostly at 90-91. He threw his breaking pitches with confidence, locating them for strikes and to induce swings.
"He's at the point in time he needs to take ownership of his career," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's got all the information he needs to get, he needs to go pitch, and that's what he did this week."
In addition to displaying the quality pitches that give him such potential, McDonald showed the inconsistency that has plagued him. Last night, he overcame it.
McDonald hit Evan Gattis to lead off the second and a double by Chris Johnson to the notch in left-center that Starling Marte got a glove on but couldn't catch put runners on second and third with none out.
McDonald walked the bases loaded, struck out Juan Francisco on three pitches, walked in a run and struck out the final two batters.
"The second inning was a big test for him," Hurdle said. "That's a test he hasn't passed some games. He passed that test tonight and was able to pitch four more innings after. That's the guy we're looking for, that's the guy our team likes playing behind."
McDonald received help from his offense.
No team that had faced former Pirate Paul Maholm this season had squeezed a run across the plate, but his scoreless streak ended at 252/3 innings.
Andrew McCutchen's second double of the game tied the score at 1-1 in the sixth after Marte walked to start the inning and took second on Jose Tabata's sacrifice bunt. McCutchen missed a home run by a few feet, roping one off the Clemente Wall in right as Marte scored easily.
Maholm worked the count to 1-2 on Gaby Sanchez, but left a fastball over the plate with his fourth pitch. Sanchez put it into the bushes in center for his first home run this season and the Pirates led, 3-1.
"He's gotten me out with that same pitch," Sanchez said.
"In that situation, you might not think he's going to come with the heater. You might think he's going to come with something off-speed."
Mark Melancon continued his dominance of the eighth inning and Jason Grilli earned his sixth save, but the night belonged to McDonald.
Asked about the biggest difference between the McDonald who pitched Monday and the McDonald who pitched last night, Hurdle said: "I've been telling him that for six months. There's two guys."
With the help of his catchers, McDonald may have found the way to bridge the gap between the two.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM