PITTSBURGH -- The Bucs, in case it has gone unnoticed, are at it again. This was about the point last season when they began to grab attention. This time around, they intend to keep it.Stirring from a Rip Van Winkle-esque doze to contend in the NL Central, the Pirates actually used Interleague Play as a catapult into the race. Now, they encroached within two games of division-leading Cincinnati with Thursday night's 9-1 drubbing of the Twins, in front of 21,563 in PNC Park and behind James McDonald's habitual tenacity and an opportunistic offense, both extremely timely. Making his eighth start out of 14 following a Pittsburgh loss, McDonald preempted another losing streak by tossing his first complete game in 61 Major League starts. It was also No. 1 for the 2012 staff. "It's nice to get one. It's something we've talked about," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Moving forward, we'll let everyone know he's done it. I'm sure he'll let everyone know he's done it -- and rightfully so." Helping McDonald (6-3) claim more staff bragging rights were the hitters, who opened a wide-enough lead for Hurdle to allow his prized right-hander to take a 120-pitch journey. In a closer game, the bullpen undoubtedly would have been asked to handle the last two innings. And you want to talk timely? Garrett Jones, on his 31st birthday, joined Andrew McCutchen in driving in three runs. Two of them came on a seventh-inning homer that was followed immediately by Pedro Alvarez's 435-foot drive over the right-field stands. "Every home run is special on the Major League level, and just contributing means a lot," said Jones, who was playing on his birthday for only the second time in his career. "I guess it's a little extra special when it's on your birthday. "It was good to go out and score a bunch of runs, the way J-Mac was pitching. He was very impressive. From last year to this year, it's like night and day how he's learned to harness his stuff, and trust his stuff, recognizing that he's got great stuff. He's learned how to pitch -- it's impressive to watch, whether on the bench or on defense, how he's going after hitters, being aggressive and confident." "He just comes down and deals," McCutchen said of McDonald. "He gives us a chance to score some runs, then keeps us ahead the whole game. He's grown. He's going out there and doing a good job." And that is how this stretch has begun to reflect the run up to the All-Star Game a year ago. The Pirates are making their move by being -- with only a weekend's play remaining -- the only NL Central team with a winning record in Interleague Play.
It will not be an easy farewell to Interleague Play. The Tigers visit and plan to throw Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the Bucs. Those latter two humbled the Pirates last month in the Motor City, combining for 27 strikeouts in a pair of wins.It will be a test for a Pittsburgh offense that has awakened to score 35 runs in its last five games. "They're doing things they're capable of doing, that I remained optimistic about them being able to do," Hurdle said. "That'll be a nice challenge this weekend." The series with Minnesota signaled the start of 20 straight playing days into the All-Star Game break, the kind of uninterrupted stretch that benefits a streaking team. The Bucs qualify, with four wins in their past five games, and particularly qualify in the park where they will host Detroit this weekend. The Pirates are a Major League-best 14-4 at home since May 12. "Last year, we were able to finish out the first half strong. Now we've got more experience along those lines," Hurdle said. "Guys are geared up, ready to go." McDonald's biggest out was the one into which Justin Morneau ran to end the sixth inning. It put McDonald on the straightaway to as sure a thing as there is in baseball these days: When he pitches through the sixth at PNC Park, he now is 10-1, and the only loss was to Houston, 1-0, last month. The Pirates maintained their newest tradition of first-inning scoring, grabbing a quick 1-0 lead on McCutchen's triple and Jones' RBI single. That marked the ninth time in their last 11 games that either the Bucs or the opposition tallied in the first inning -- but, in a strange twist, never both. McCutchen was the man again in the second, making shortstop Brian Dozier pay for his two-out error on Neil Walker's grounder that loaded the bases. McCutchen's double up the left-center alley cleared the bases, giving the Pirates a 4-0 lead. The Twins cut into that on ex-Pirate Ryan Doumit's two-out RBI single in the fourth. Two innings later, Rod Barajas chased Minnesota starter Liam Hendriks with a two-run homer, giving the Pirates a 6-1 lead with Barajas' seventh home run of the season. By that time, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire knew his team's fate. The Twins were doomed to become the Pirates' seventh victims in their last eight series. "As the story goes," Gardenhire said, "if you don't pitch, you get whacked. You get behind like that, and McDonald was throwing the heck out of the ball -- good fastball, good breaking ball, kept us off balance -- but we get deep in a hole behind a guy like that, who's throwing like that, it makes it really tough."
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.