Pirates rally to take down Maholm, Braves

Rob Biertempfel
| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

A trip to the movies with catcher Russell Martin might turn out to be the turning point in Pirates pitcher James McDonald's season.

The duo didn't take in a Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, they sat down Saturday afternoon in the video room at PNC Park and screened a highlight reel of McDonald's strikeouts.

After watching his old, dominant self, McDonald went out a few hours later and cooled off the hottest team in baseball. McDonald racked up nine strikeouts as the Pirates clipped the Atlanta Braves, 3-1.

“The confidence of seeing that video carried into the game,” McDonald said. “It was a motivational thing. It worked.”

Martin got the idea a few days ago, when the team's video staff put together a highlight reel to celebrate A.J. Burnett's 2,000th career strikeout. Would it be enough to spark McDonald, who was hammered in his previous outing and in danger of losing his job?

“I just had a feeling,” Martin said. “I wanted him to see some positive reinforcement.”

McDonald (2-2) pitched six innings and allowed one run on two hits and walked four. The right-hander went into the game knowing his spot in the rotation could be on the line when Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton return from injuries in early May.

After striking out the side in the first inning, McDonald pumped his fist in celebration as he walked off the mound.

“I was throwing first-pitch strikes,” said McDonald, who set a career-high with 15 swings and misses in the game. “Going after guys with competitive pitches.”

McDonald's performance in the second inning was a head-scratcher. He hit a batter, gave up a long double and issued two walks to force in a run. He also got three three-pitch strikeouts, perplexing B.J. Upton with an 80 mph curveball to end the inning with the bases loaded.

“We got McDonald on the ropes there,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Instead of putting a big, crooked number up and maybe even get him out of there, we let him wiggle out of it.”

It helped that McDonald faced the bottom of the order after the Braves loaded the bases with none out — although he walked No. 8 hitter Andrelton Simmons (.185 batting average) on four pitches to push in the run.

“The second inning was a big test for him,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's a test he hasn't passed in some games. He passed it tonight.”

After that, McDonald settled in. He did not allow another hit until Chris Johnson's infield single in the sixth inning.

Braves starter Paul Maholm (3-1) went into the sixth having not allowed a run in his first 25 13 innings this season. He got ahead of Starling Marte, 0-2, then threw four straight balls.

Marte had drawn only two walks in his previous 68 plate appearances. It was just the seventh free pass allowed by Maholm.

Jose Tabata sacrificed Marte to second base. Andrew McCutchen mashed an RBI double off the Clemente Wall to shatter Maholm's scoreless streak.

Maholm tried to get an 87 mph sinker past Gaby Sanchez, who whacked it into the shrubbery on the slope beyond the center field wall. Sanchez's first homer of the season gave the Pirates a 3-1 lead.

“I threw a fastball in,” Maholm said. “It's one of the only pitches he can do damage on, and he did it.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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