Pirates starting pitcher McDonald looks to pick up momentum in 2012
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BRADENTON, Fla. — James McDonald was with the Pirates in Florida for the six weeks leading up to the 2011 season, but he did not have much of a spring training.
McDonald made three Grapefruit League starts — throwing a total of 50 pitches in 6.2 innings — before straining his left oblique. He did not appear in another spring game last year.
As other pitchers fine-tuned their mechanics, all McDonald could do was work out lightly and wait to heal.
A couple of days before the regular season began, McDonald was cleared to pitch. He assured management he was ready to go and took his spot in the rotation.
McDonald now admits he was over-eager and came back too soon. But after a slow start, the right-hander was able to rebound and take significant steps forward in his development — and he expects that momentum to continue this year.
"It taught me, don't try to rush back," McDonald said Tuesday. "I put the team in risk, really, because I wasn't 100 percent (ready). They could've had somebody fill in. Instead, I rushed back."
McDonald's first four regular-season outings got progressively worse. After getting rocked for eight runs in three innings against Florida, the right-hander was 0-2 with a 10.13 ERA.
General manager Neal Huntington also accepts blame for McDonald's lousy April.
"Was he ready to pitch at the major league level• Yeah, his pitches were right and we felt he was our best option at that point," Huntington said. "Was that the best thing for James• In hindsight, no, because James struggled to find his way and to build his rhythm and build confidence."
McDonald's turnaround began April 27 when he tossed six scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants. By mid-May, McDonald finally began to feel comfortable on the mound.
"That's when the ball was coming out easy and there was less effort to get it up there," McDonald said. "My command got better."
Fastball command is crucial. Any pitcher can put a fastball in the strike zone. But the best pitchers use it to control an at-bat, firing quality strikes to keep the batter off balance.
Solid command leads to quicker innings and longer outings because the pitcher is throwing fewer pitches. In April, McDonald averaged 18.24 pitches per inning. In May, he averaged 16.76 pitches and cut his ERA in half.
"It's really important because if I go deeper in games, it will save the bullpen," McDonald said. "Handing the ball to them in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning is going to help me and help the team."
McDonald must control more than just his fastball. It's a constant battle to keep his emotions in check.
"Sometimes, you can tell out there if something upsets him or if he's not feeling right on the money," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "You can tell sometimes when he's thinking (too much). You can just see it. You can smell the wood burning."
In his next-to-last start last season, McDonald faced the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was his first game against the club that drafted him in 2002. The game was played at Dodger Stadium, about 25 miles from McDonald's home in Long Beach, Calif.
It was a disaster. McDonald needed 76 pitches to get through just three innings, and yielded five runs and seven hits.
"That was a young mistake: An immature pitcher who let everything outside his world affect him," Searage said.
Huntington kept on eye on McDonald after that game, waiting to see how he'd react. There was no sulking or self-pity by McDonald, which pleased the GM.
"He knows now the next time he goes out and his emotions start to get the better of him, he can feel it and he can stop it," Huntington said. "James did some really good things in the second half. There's every reason to believe he's going to continue to take steps forward this year."
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