PITTSBURGH -- Pirates right-hander James McDonald is using the extra time given him between starts to regain his command. Not of his pitches, but of himself.

"I have to get back to that frame of mind I had earlier in the season," said McDonald, who will have had six days to work on it before he takes the mound Friday in St. Louis. "Damage control -- I have to make adjustments to what [opposing hitters] are trying to do to me."

A six-run San Diego rally in the fifth inning Friday, wiping out his 7-1 lead, was the latest, quickest evidence of McDonald's frustrating regression.

In a sport as mental as baseball, drift can be an ally or a foe. In the first couple months of the season, McDonald's emergence as an ace was underscored by his newfound ability to calmly pitch out of trouble. His recent woes are due to misplacement of that ability.

Since the All-Star break, McDonald has been a big-inning victim: In six starts, he has allowed multiple runs in an inning 10 times; in 17 first-half starts, he had only six multiple-run innings, never more than three runs (once).

There doubtless is also a physical element to the slump. McDonald has allowed more homers in 31 innings since the break (eight) than in 110 frames prior to it (seven). The long season gets to everybody, at different levels. However, McDonald conceded the key to his turnaround is regaining his shutdown instinct of earlier this season, when his body language and stuff both delivered the same message to batters when trouble brewed: You're the one on the ropes, not me.

In unfamiliar territory, Bucs poised for stretch run

PITTSBURGH -- Forty-six games to go. As the wire gets closer, your heartbeat gets louder, your palms get sweatier.

"You start running out of games. The less games, the less room for error," Pirates manger Clint Hurdle acknowledged. "There is heightened importance to the games, just because you're running out of them. The focus, externally, becomes more acute."

The Pirates have never been in this situation, not even those who were around last year, which by the middle of August was another lost year. Hurdle is keeping a close eye on how the players react. But it is also a distant eye. He is making certain to give everyone room to breathe.

"You have to hold onto the notion that you control only what you can control," Hurdle said. "If you're down, how do you respond? You have to play the game smart, you have to play it hard."

The Bucs will indeed play a hard stretch. They are competing for a postseason spot against teams that have all been there recently and have firsthand knowledge of dealing with the pressure: the 2010 division champion Reds and 2011 World Series champion Cards for the National League Central, and the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and D-backs for the NL Wild Card -- all playoff teams within the last three years.

"You have to make sure you play the game with controlled aggression late in the season," Hurdle said. "Playing to win vs. playing not to lose. Sometimes you have to find a way to dig deeper, tie your shoes tighter, and go from there."

Pet Hurdle adage: "The game doesn't know the game is important." Meaning, that first-inning at-bat is intrinsically the same as the money-time ninth-inning at-bat.

So the game doesn't change. But the stakes do. It's truth-or-dare nightly. High drama, and the curtain is rising.

Last word

"I want to see resilience, perseverance, fight, courage and commitment." -- manager Clint Hurdle's stretch-drive checklist for the Pirates.

Worth noting

• Juan Cruz passed the test of pitching on a second consecutive day in Monday night's game, even though he allowed two walks in one-third of an inning and was charged with the eventual game-winning run in the 5-4 defeat to the Dodgers.

"He had some real close misses, but the velocity was there and he said he felt good. We feel we're in a pretty good spot with him with his health," Hurdle said of the righty, who was activated Sunday after being on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation.

• Numerology update: Monday night's game was the Pirates' 12th of the season with a 5-4 final (they are 7-5 in those), and the 33rd with a "5" on one side of the scoreboard, or 29 percent of all their games.

• Dodgers pinch-hitter Juan Rivera singled off Tony Watson in the eighth inning Monday to drive in a run charged to Cruz, only the ninth of 56 inherited runners to score against the lefty. For comparison, the other six members of the current bullpen have inherited a total of 35 runners.

"No fear," Hurdle said of Watson's demeanor. "His confidence is big and he is mentally tough. He demands a lot out of himself."