Pirates' McDonald gets off to bad start in final tune-up before season

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ALTOONA -- James McDonald, likely one of the most important players on the Pirates roster this season, struggled Saturday in the team's final spring training tune-up before the opener Monday against the Chicago Cubs.

McDonald lasted two innings and gave up three hits, four runs (all earned), walked four, made two wild pitches and stuck out two as the Pirates lost to their Class AA affiliate, the Altoona Curve, 8-6, before a record crowd of 10,116 at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

It was clearly not the way that manager Clint Hurdle wanted to see McDonald, the Pirates' No. 3 starter, go into the season, but he is not about to panic. He has seen enough from the right-hander this spring to know he is capable of having a big year.

"At times, James tries to feel his way through things, and one of the things we stressed with him is that he just needs to go out and make pitches," Hurdle said. "He has downhill angle on his fastball, three other pitches he can throw effectively, but he has to work ahead for first-pitch strikes and that wasn't in play today.

"So, today he probably got another wakeup call, but I've been around. This is my 39th spring, and what you see in spring doesn't mean that is what you're going to see in the season. So he knows what is at stake.

"I'm firmly confident in the fact that when the bell rings, I have every bit of optimism that James is going to show up well."

McDonald was 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA last season, but those numbers don't tell the whole story.

He was 9-2 with a 2.37 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break but went 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA in 13 starts after the break. That fast start has the Pirates believing McDonald can be a solid starter if he can develop some consistency, but he has had some rough first innings this spring.

McDonald said that he just made some bad pitches against the Curve and had some struggles with his control. He also felt like he settled in and got better in the second inning.

The Curve did all their damage against McDonald in the first as three hits and three walks led to all four of the runs he gave up. In the second, he faced four batters, walking one.

"I'm happy [the bad outing] happened here," McDonald said. "It was just a long inning, it was just one I wanted to say 'OK, it is over' and just move on from there. I thought I had a decent spring overall, other than today, really, I was pretty solid and I feel ready.

"There were a couple of rough innings this spring, but some of those innings the other team got seeing-eye hits and you can't help that. But the first inning I just need to lock it down and focus in harder because, once I get going, it is pretty smooth from there."

Left-handed reliever Tony Watson did not have a good day, either, pitching for the Curve (there were players mixed and matched on both rosters based on situations). He was rocked for four runs on three hits in 2/3 of an inning.

The big hit off Watson was a grand slam by Pirates left fielder Starling Marte who, along with Russell Martin and Travis Snider, had a multiple-hit game.

Marte finished 2 for 3 with four RBIs, Snider was 2 for 4, and Martin went 2 for 2.

Martin, however, was 0 for 2 in attempting to throw out base-stealers, and that is an area he was brought in to improve.

"I feel very confident in myself obviously with the game experience I got last year and getting some at-bats up here and I feel very good at the plate," said Marte through teammate Pedro Alvarez, who served as his interpreter. "I played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and that helped me out a bunch, and the biggest thing is working on my plate discipline. I am making pitchers throw strikes to me."

NOTES -- The Curve made two major announcements Saturday. First, the team will extend its player-development contract with the Pirates through the 2018 season. That will mean the Curve will be the longest-standing Pirates affiliate in the modern era. Also, the Curve will host the 2014 Eastern League All-Star Game at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

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Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or Twitter: @paulzeise First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM


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