All things considered, this was a good night for the Pirates despite their 5-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Starter James McDonald looked much more like the McDonald of the first half of the season -- at least for his final three innings -- than the guy who pitched horribly in his previous four starts. That's a reason for optimism as the Pirates continue their push for a spot in baseball's postseason.
McDonald wasn't perfect, not even close. He allowed two more runs in the first inning -- a big problem for him of late -- and another two in a 30-pitch third inning. But all wasn't dismal. The Reds hit only a couple of balls hard off McDonald -- Scott Rolen's two-run single in the first and Ryan Ludwick's RBI double off the left-field wall in the third.
McDonald then finished strong, allowing just a walk in the middle three innings. He left after six with the game tied, 4-4.
McDonald gave Pirates manager Clint Hurdle a lot of what he was looking to get, namely a chance to win the game. The team didn't get it done on this night, but give much credit to the Reds for that. They scored a run in the eighth inning off reliever Jared Hughes on Rolen's triple to right-center and Todd Frazier's bounce out to win for the 15th time in 16 games and the 22nd time in their past 25.
"We need him involved in a positive way," Hurdle said of McDonald before the game. "Do we need the numbers from the first half? We don't have to have him reach that bar again, but we need him more competitive than he's been in the past. We need him making pitches, pitching deep into games, giving us a chance to win.
"We've more or less been upside down on that the past few games with him on the mound. First-pitch strike efficiency has not been good. The overall pitches-per-inning has been spiked. All the numbers that were so good and showed so much progress have kind of fallen back."
And Hurdle's assessment of McDonald after the game?
"I thought he was very resilient. He battled back. He ended up walking one and striking out seven. His [pitch] sequence was much better, even though he struggled at times early. He battled. He stayed after it."
You know, the way McDonald did before the All-Star break. He went 9-3 in his first 17 starts, allowing just 29 earned runs and 31 walks in 110 innings for a 2.37 earned run average. But post-break? McDonald's performances had been awful. He went 1-2 in his previous four starts, giving up 20 earned runs and 19 walks in 20 2/3 innings for an 8.71 ERA.
Make no mistake, this was a huge start for McDonald and the Pirates.
This seemed like it might be the perfect night for McDonald to find his game. He built that wonderful first-half record in part because of two great starts against the Reds. He won both, allowing just one run in 14 1/3 innings.
That's the McDonald we saw in the middle three innings Saturday night.
In this case, the last impression is the most important impression.
No other player -- certainly, no other pitcher -- figures to be more critical than McDonald to the Pirates' success down the stretch.
Before the game, there was much conversation about McDonald's need to retaliate for the Reds' Aroldis Chapman hitting Andrew McCutchen with a 101 miles-per-hour fastball in the ninth inning Friday night. But McDonald never had a chance. He was in trouble from the start. Reds leadoff man Zack Cozart lined McDonald's third pitch up the middle for a single. Drew Stubbs then bunted for a single and, after Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez threw the ball away trying to get Stubbs, the Reds had runners on second and third. Rolen's two-out single to right made it 2-0 and added to McDonald's first-inning miseries. McDonald has allowed nine first-inning runs in his past five starts.
The chance for retaliation ended in the Pirates' half of the second inning after Reds starter Mike Leake hit Josh Harrison with a pitch in the left thigh. Harrison chirped at Leake on his way to first base and Leake chirped back. That prompted home-plate umpire Brian Gorman to warn both benches that the next deliberately hit batter would result in ejection for the pitcher and his manager.
"I want it stopped now," Gorman told Hurdle, who was steamed that two of his players had been hit. Gorman quickly gave Hurdle the chance to cool off in the clubhouse, throwing him out of the game.
The retaliation will have to wait for another game, although Hughes did get a small measure of satisfaction when he fielded Dioner Navarro's slow roller up the first-base line and gave him a hard shove when he tagged him out to end the eighth inning. The crowd of 41,577 booed lustily, then, of course, roared moments later when Chapman struck out pinch hitter Gaby Sanchez on his ninth pitch to him to end the game with Harrison on second base.
Did I mention it was a small measure of satisfaction for Hughes and the Pirates?
"We're going to keep showing up," Hurdle said. "A.J. [Burnett] is looking forward to taking the ball [today]."
Hurdle had talked about going to a "Plan B" if McDonald continued to struggle. That isn't necessary, at least for now. McDonald will make his next start Friday night at home against the San Diego Padres.
Yes, the Pirates lost for the second consecutive night to fall 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Reds in the National League Central Division.
But all was not lost on this steamy summer night on the banks of the Ohio River.