PITTSBURGH -- Looking at a dwindling schedule, the Pirates obviously do not yet know where it will take them. But here is one thing they do know: They will not get far without right-hander James McDonald being one of their lead guides.

Thus, McDonald's non-decision start on Saturday night -- even in a 4-3 loss to the Cubs -- was viewed through rose-colored glasses, even though he spent all 5 2/3 of his innings in trouble.

Despite the troubles, though, McDonald did not give in. He rationed Chicago to a trio of single-run innings -- the first time in 11 second-half starts he didn't let trouble snowball into a multi-run inning. In two of those starts, McDonald never was in significant jeopardy, twice blanking the Cardinals. In all the others, threats blew up into crooked numbers, helping explain his 6.91 ERA since the All-Star break.

"That was a real good sign, as far as showing how he competed," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He finished things off, so innings didn't get away from him."

McDonald's biggest ally in the clubhouse also considered that a significant sign.

"This is a big turnaround year for [McDonald], and he's gone through some stuff he never went through before," said A.J. Burnett, alluding to dealing with high-profile success and the expectations that brings. "We saw him being pretty consistent that first half, and now he expects to do so well every time. But he has to get back to that world where he can make that next pitch quickly and without any concerns. That's when he's at his best."

Hurdle: Chameleon effect could be at play

PITTSBURGH -- Since entering August at their season peak -- 16 games above .500 and in second place, three games behind the Reds -- the Pirates have held their own in the tough games, going 9-11 against teams with winning records.

Not a spectacular record, but considerably better than Pittsburgh's 4-13 mark over the same stretch against sub-.500 clubs.

A vote for the concept of playing up, or down, to the competition?

"That could be true," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle conceded. "There's probably an argument for that. A chameleon effect ... sometimes that's what happens in sports."

The Bucs changed their colors on that Aug. 1 date. Until then, they owned the Majors' best record versus sub-.500 teams, at 37-15. Then they jumped tracks to that 4-13 figure.

"Except, I think it's been case-specific," Hurdle said. "We, obviously, did not answer the bell in Milwaukee [being swept in a Aug. 31-Sept. 2 series the Brewers had begun with a 62-67 record]. But we did against St. Louis [taking a pair of three-game series].

"We just haven't played well," added Hurdle, looking at the broader picture and suggesting his club has been hot and cold, regardless of the opposition. "We haven't played consistently well."

Worth noting

• Entering Sunday's action, the Pirates had dropped five straight one-run games and have gone 1-7 in them since having the National League's top record in those tight games on Aug. 9 (24-17).

• As expected, right-handed reliever Chad Qualls was activated off the DL prior to Sunday's game. He had been out since Aug. 25 with discomfort in his right big toe.

• Neil Walker (lower-back tightness) took his first left-handed swings prior to Sunday's game, Jose Tabata (left foot contusion) was available off the bench and Travis Snider (strained right hamstring) remained questionable.

Last word

"Athletes live in the moment. He's not back home polishing the June and July Player of the Month trophies."
-- Hurdle, on whether Andrew McCutchen tries to view his current modest production in the context of those two fabulous months.