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Pirates notebook: Heavier workload helps McDonald

| Sunday, April 21, 2013, 6:21 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher James McDonald delivers during the third inning against the Braves on Saturday, April 20, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher James McDonald talks with shortstop Clint Barmes during the third inning against the Braves on Saturday, April 20, 2013, at PNC Park.

After a disastrous outing April 15 against the St. Louis Cardinals, right-hander James McDonald said his body felt “beat up” and hadn't adjusted to the grind of being in a starting rotation.

The solution was to ramp up — not ease up — his workload between starts. On Saturday, McDonald tossed six strong innings to beat the Atlanta Braves.

“I beefed up the workout,” McDonald said. “Kept grinding and pushing myself to be stronger and better. Getting my body adjusted to going every five days. I felt better (Saturday). I had more energy, more life.”

McDonald's fastball touched 93 mph more often than in his previous outing, when it sat around 90 mph. He racked up nine strikeouts, getting his first six outs via the whiff.

“No matter the situation, I felt confident with everything I did,” McDonald said. “Bases loaded? I didn't care. All I cared about was making that pitch.”

The physical improvements are the result of a better mental approach. McDonald's psyche — trusting his stuff, dedicating himself to off-day workouts — made a difference.

“He's at the point where he needs to take ownership of his career,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's got all the information he needs. He needs to go pitch. That's what he did this week. There doesn't need to be any more talk. He needs to follow up with action. A big outing for him on a night we needed it.”

Liriano lurking

Francisco Liriano's rehab start Saturday at Double-A Altoona was not as encouraging as his first start at High-A Bradenton. The left-hander needed 67 pitches to get through 2 23 innings, allowing four earned runs, with three walks and four strikeouts. Liriano's fastball was between 90-94 mph, and his slider sat between 84-87 mph.

Hurdle said he thought Liriano might have been looking ahead to his Pirates debut, which could come in early May.

“He was outside of himself,” Hurdle said.

The two-start sample is emblematic of the inconsistency Liriano has displayed throughout his career. He still has swing-and-miss stuff, as evident by his 15-strikeout performance last July 13 against the Oakland A's while with the Minnesota Twins. Ten days later, Liriano allowed seven runs, all earned, in 2 23 innings against the Chicago White Sox.

“I'm not going to psychoanalyze him; there's enough people who have done that,” Hurdle said. “A pitcher with really good stuff can get caught up in the swing and miss. They get caught up in putting people down rather than getting people out. It's a different mindset. We've tried to address three pitches or less as a yardstick we like to use for our pitchers. How many outs can you record in three pitches or less?

“He's a human being, he's not a robot. He's not a guy that just dials in and throws 75-80 percent strikes, so you deal with the history and you try to bring him along.”

Liriano is scheduled to make his next rehab start Thursday with Triple-A Indianapolis.

Taillon taking command

Making the jump to Double-A has not slowed right-hander Jameson Taillon. In six starts since being promoted to Altoona late last season, Taillon is 5-1 with a 1.29 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.

GM Neal Huntington said Taillon's command of his four-seam fastball has improved dramatically. It was an area Taillon zeroed in on.

“We emphasize it with all our guys, but Jameson took it to another level,” Huntington said. “He gave up some multi-run home runs with some mislocated four-seamers when he probably could've gone to a two-seamer. So give him all the credit; he was trying to develop the command.”

In three starts this year, Taillon is 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He's amassed 20 strikeouts in 18 innings. Taillon will start Monday against Richmond.

Taillon's breaking ball and sinker continue to be weapons, and his changeup has been in play more often.

“He continues to mature,” Huntington said. “He's developing his pitch selection and his recognition of swings. He's not purely trying to out-stuff people, which is something he can do at those levels.”

Around the horn

Right-hander pitcher Jeff Karstens (shoulder inflammation) threw a bullpen session Sunday without incident. He's slated to throw a simulated game (one inning/20 pitches) later this week. ... Right-hander pitcher Charlie Morton (elbow surgery) will make his next rehab start Tuesday with Double-A Altoona.

Rob Biertempfel and Travis Sawchik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Biertempfel at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib and Sawchik at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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