CINCINNATI -- Since James McDonald's latest misfire, the Pirates' staff has worked hard to get him to lower his sights. Manager Clint Hurdle thinks McDonald felt the need to raise his game even higher after a fabulous first half. Pitching coach Ray Searage oversaw a couple of bullpen sessions in Chicago meant to yank the righty back to basics.

How the process went will get a stiff, crucial test Saturday. McDonald is due to face the Reds in the middle game of this series between the NL Central racers.

"He's making progress," Hurdle said Friday afternoon. "The biggest thing we've been able to plow through is just getting him to understand that we don't need more. As he met the targets he set for himself in the first half, he felt like it was time for him to add on, just because of the way the first half went."

McDonald entered the All-Star break with a record of 9-3 and a 2.37 ERA. In four starts since, he has an ERA of 8.71 and has averaged five innings.

If the staff feels McDonald has been trying to do too much, here is a thought: Perhaps he had put more pressure on himself because he was pitching between Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard, two starters who both typically put the bullpen to work; McDonald may have felt the need to be a bigger man between them.

Saturday, he shouldn't have that feeling. He'll be working between Wandy Rodriguez, who went at least six innings in 16 of his first 22 starts, and A.J. Burnett.

"He just needs to get back to executing one pitch at a time," Hurdle said of McDonald. "That's what worked for him early, and what will work for him now. He just needs to get that mindset back in place."

Pirates seeing what they had hoped for in Ludwick

CINCINNATI -- After being one of the Pirates' big additions at the 2011 Trade Deadline, Ryan Ludwick's two homers and 11 RBIs in 38 games did little to break the club's free-fall out of contention.

In his last 14 games alone for the Reds, Ludwick has poked six homers and driven in 20 runs, as one of the main pistons behind their torrid pace.

"He's confirming the fact our scouts were hoping for us to find last year. It's there," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "It's been a real good fit for him in this lineup. We put a lot of attention on him and [fellow stretch-drive pickup] Derrek Lee to be run producers. [Ludwick] is probably not in the same place offensively than he was last year; he's worked to get back to this point. He's carried a load for the Reds."

Ludwick's surge is one reason the Reds have not only survived since losing Joey Votto to knee surgery July 16, they have flourished. Cincinnati was 14-3 since, entering Friday night's opener of the series with the Bucs.

"They lost the first two when he went out ... and they've lost one since," said Hurdle. "And [Brandon] Phillips is also banged up. They have a very deep, experienced bench. A tough lineup to deal with, from top to bottom. Speed, power. So they are one of the best teams in baseball, and the hottest."

Worth noting

• Ta'Juan Dutrieuille of McKeesport, Pa., received one of a dozen college scholarships awarded to high school senior participants in MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Dutrieuille will be attending the Greater Allegheny campus of Penn State University as an engineering major.

• Disabled righty Juan Cruz (shoulder inflammation) threw 25 pitches, including breaking balls, to Gaby Sanchez and Alex Presley on Friday. The staff will monitor how he feels the next two days, and determine the next step on his comeback upon the club's Monday return to Pittsburgh.

• Friday night's game began a stretch of 20 straight playing days for the Pirates, whose next scheduled off-day will be Aug. 23. Manager Clint Hurdle confirmed there will be a need for one, perhaps two, spot starts from someone outside the current rotation. Kevin Correia is a logical candidate. Details will be forthcoming.

• Six of July's Pirates telecasts now rank as the six top-rated in the history of ROOT.

Last word

"We feel the excitement. We're playing the first-place team at the beginning of the month of August. As we continue to work and have our sights on bigger things ... this is as big as it has gotten for us."
-- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, sensing and responding to the buzz at Great American Ball Park for Bucs versus Reds, NL Central Showdown I.