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McDonald thinks he now knows key to consistency

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher James McDonald delivers against the Rays on Thursday, March 7, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

Most of the questions about the Pirates' starting rotation this season revolve around health.

The questions about James McDonald, however, revolve around consistency.

Which McDonald will the Pirates see Thursday when the No. 3 starter makes his 2013 debut: the guy who began the 2012 season 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA and a .973 WHIP in his first 17 starts or the guy who finished it 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA and a WHIP of 1.79 in his last 12 starts?

McDonald thinks he knows the answer to why he fell off so sharply in the second half and believes it has to more to do with his mentality than anything.

“I think I need to keep that chip on my shoulder, never feel relaxed, never feel at ease on the mound,” he said. “I need to always feel like I'm in a situation where I need to get this guy out right then and there. I think at times I've kind of eased back and I'll look around and I've got the bases loaded with one out. I need to keep my foot on the gas and just have that mentality from pitch one.”

Realizing there is a difference between being comfortable versus too comfortable on the mound is a step. Given that McDonald made the statement after struggling through a rough first inning in his final start of spring against the Double-A Altoona Curve, however, may indicate that there is still a difference between knowledge and execution.

“I think at times James just tries to feel his way through things, and one of the things we continue to stress with him ... he just needs to go out and make pitches,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He probably got another wake-up call before the season goes about what (he's) got to do to be successful, what (he's) got to do to compete and what (he's) got to do to give our team a chance to win. Those sequences (Saturday) weren't clean, and he knows that better than anybody.”

The 28-year-old finished 2012 with an ERA identical to the year before (4.21). He pitched the same number of innings (171) in 2011 and 2012 and won three more games last year for a career high of 12.

McDonald said this was one of his better springs, and he feels more prepared going into this season than he has in years past.

Last season, the right-hander developed his slider to use behind his fastball and curveball, and the addition was cited as part of the reason for his early success. This year, McDonald said he'll go with whatever's working, and it could be a different pitch each game.

“Whatever's the hot pitch going into that game, I'm going to run with,” he said. “I feel like everything's a weapon right now. I could get a guy out on a curveball if I wanted to or a slider if I wanted to. I feel like all my weapons are pretty good right now.”

Should McDonald struggle early, time may not be on his side. The Pirates have Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens all at varying stages of progress toward returning to the rotation, and as they get healthy, Hurdle will have decisions to make.

“These guys all understand in the three, four and five spots that we've got guys coming back,” Hurdle said. “It's not a threat. It is what it is.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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