CLEVELAND -- The Indians paid James McDonald the ultimate left-handed compliment. But the slumping Pirates could not complement McDonald's typically tenacious pitching.
As a result, the Bucs were dealt a 2-0 loss in front of an Interleague crowd of 31,920 at Progressive Field on Friday, their fourth consecutive defeat, and McDonald was dealt another cruel blow.
McDonald's record dropped to 5-3, all three losses coming by shutout, the last two by 2-0 and 1-0 scores.
Fighting the psychological battle against being overwhelmed by frustration, McDonald again cited a passage in the pitchers' handbook.
"It happens. They're playing hard behind me, and that's all I can ask. Sometimes I'll give up six runs and get a win," McDonald said.
To which the cynic might say: "That's something this team won't see soon." And even the realist is saying, "Not until this team acquires some world-class plate discipline."
As Pittsburgh's emerging ace went six innings, allowing three hits and the one run, while walking two and striking out five, the Pirates admittedly had few opportunities against Cleveland righty Justin Masterson, who featured nine strikeouts in his seven innings of four-hit pitching.
But the two times they did have an opening, in back-to-back innings no less, they appeared to shut the door on their own faces, providing a window into the problems with the plate discipline of which manager Clint Hurdle often speaks.
The first presented itself in the sixth. Neil Walker led off with a double and advanced to third on Andrew McCutchen's productive out, a pushed grounder to second. Cleanup man Garrett Jones took a ball, then ...
"... he gets a hanging slider on the inner half of the plate," Hurdle dissected, "but takes a too-big swing and hits the ball in on his hands [and pops out to second]."
The following inning, Masterson threw two consecutive pitches totally out of control. The last one to Josh Harrison was two feet to the right of the plate, and high, bouncing off his upper back. The first one to Alex Presley was two feet to the left of the plate, and into the dirt, bouncing past catcher Carlos Santana for a wild pitch that placed Jose Tabata (who had walked) on third and Harrison on second.
Presley swung at the very next pitch, also in the dirt, and missed. He then flied out to the opposite field for the final out of the inning, the potential tying and lead runs stranded, Cleveland's 1-0 lead intact.
"That three-pitch sequence with Alex ... not really a good gameplan for that point in the game," Hurdle conceded. "One of the things we've battled with since the beginning of the season is being ready to get good pitches to hit, not just trying to hit.
"Too many guys just wanna hit -- rather than getting a good pitch to hit."
The Indians may not have set a record for most left-handed hitters in a lineup, but at worst they tied it. Including two switch-hitters (Asdrubal Cabrera and Santana), every hitter McDonald faced stood in the left-side batter's box.
Those two switch-hitters were principals in the only run of the game, but in a decidedly unconventional way.
Fair? Who said baseball is fair? Logical? Nobody said that, either.
As they are wont to do against recognized left-handed pull hitters, the Pirates' infielders shifted for Santana. His first time up, the shift worked brilliantly -- Santana hit a line drive into short right, but Walker was in its tracks, fielding it on one hop and easily throwing him out.
Santana's second time up, McDonald's 2-2 curveball to him worked brilliantly. Too brilliantly -- Santana took a mighty cut, but had been fooled so severely the ball could only splat off his bat on a weak path ... right down the third-base line, unprotected with Pedro Alvarez shifted the other way, and into the left-field corner for an RBI double, scoring Cabrera from first base.
"A lot of guys might take that pitch or swing through it," McDonald said of a former teammate when both were prospects in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. "He's a good hitter. I've played with him. Somehow, he got his bat on the ball, tried to put it in play, made something happen. A good piece of hitting."
Lately, more than ever, that has been the Pirates' missing piece.
"Just an excellent job of pitching by Masterson and our bullpen," complimented Cleveland manager Manny Acta. "A well-pitched ballgame by both sides. McDonald was very good, too."
During the Interleague phase of scheduling, the mystery of strange pitchers is a recurring subject. None of the Pirates, for instance, had had more than six previous at-bats against Masterson.
Hurdle didn't really want to hear about that, preferring to point out who realistically should have been in retreat at the two critical points of the game.
"Who's in trouble? With a guy on third base, when Jones is up?" Hurdle asked, rhetorically. "Who's in trouble when Alex [Presley] is up? We've got to have a better understanding and awareness of the game."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.