CHICAGO -- The Pirates received a much-needed boost on Saturday afternoon when second baseman Neil Walker and right fielder Travis Snider returned to the starting lineup.
Walker's start was his first since Aug. 26, as the second baseman has been dealing with lower back tightness. It relegated him to only one pinch-hit appearance, which came during Friday's 7-4 loss to the Cubs. Snider had missed four games with right hamstring discomfort.
"Looking over and seeing him on the other side, I think it definitely brought a whole different feel to the clubhouse, to the dugout," shortstop Clint Barmes said. "It's huge for this team. We need him out there and just having him out there puts everybody a little bit more at ease."
Walker went 0-for-5, while Snider went 1-for-5 with an RBI.
The Pirates' lineup did take another hit, however. Alex Presley didn't play on Saturday after the outfielder was hit by a pitch in the ninth inning on Friday.
Morris realizes his dream in debut
CHICAGO -- Bryan Morris was well aware of his surroundings walking into the Wrigley Field visitors' clubhouse on Friday morning.
"I walked through the hallway and all I could think about was all the legends that have been through the same hall," the young Pirates right-hander said. "It gets to me a little bit, because it's what I've been working for my whole life."
Morris did one better than walk those halls on Friday -- he also stepped on the mound. He worked a perfect eighth inning in his Major League debut in the Pirates' 7-4 loss to the Cubs.
"Your first big league game, to go up and get three up, three down, that's one of the sweet parts of bittersweet," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said following the loss. "For him to break in the big leagues, that's a culmination of a lifelong dream -- and there's a lot of people tied to that."
Morris, 25, got Luis Valbuena to ground out to first, Anthony Rizzo to fly out to center and Alfonso Soriano to ground out to short. Morris, the Pirates' No. 13 prospect according to MLB.com, said he wasn't nervous after retiring Valbuena.
A former first-round pick of the Dodgers in 2006 First-Year Player Draft, Morris was traded to the Pirates in 2008. He joined Pittsburgh on June 24 of this season, but was optioned back to Triple-A Indianapolis the following day without appearing in a game.
He finally got his chance on Friday.
"Very excited about being here," Morris said. "This has been my dream, and to be able to make my debut in a place like this, [I'm] kind of at a loss for words.
Is McDonald's rotation spot in jeopardy?
CHICAGO -- Clint Hurdle didn't give a definitive answer on Saturday when asked where James McDonald fits in the Pirates' pitching staff following another subpar second-half outing by the right-hander.
But the Pirates' manager did leave open the possibility of McDonald's spot in the rotation being in jeopardy.
"Sometimes, I do think you have to look at the option of taking something away from somebody. That's always an option," Hurdle said. "But is it at the top of the list? I wouldn't say that.
"You're looking to find a key to unlock something -- and that's the challenge you have with young players, is sometimes it takes different keys. Not one key works with everybody. We're trying to find the keys to unlock him, and we're running out of time."
McDonald, 27, allowed four runs and walked four in 3 2/3 innings in a 7-4 loss to the Cubs on Friday, as his second-half ERA climbed to 7.08 in 12 starts. The right-hander went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA during the first half, and admitted afterward his confidence has taken a hit.
"When I was 2-0 in the first half, it didn't matter to me. I knew I had confidence and the next pitch I threw was going to be a good pitch, regardless if [the batter] hit [the ball] or not," McDonald said. "Now, at times, things are going through my head like, 'Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that.' In the first half, I didn't think about, 'I have to.' I just thought, 'I am going to,' or, 'There's the glove, I'm going to throw it there.'"
Hurdle said he wasn't alarmed at McDonald's comments, and spoke with the right-hander after the game.
"I think there's a point in time when an honest self-evaluation is critical, and I don't hold that against a player if he will honestly self-evaluate and say something that, you know what, might be out of the norm," Hurdle said. "For him to say what he said, he's talked to me and we're kind of on the same page with some of the thoughts we've identified. I do believe that could [actually be] some help in the right direction."
Inconsistencies at root of Bucs' recent woes
CHICAGO -- Clint Hurdle doesn't think he needs in-depth manager-speak to explain the Pirates' recent skid.
"If you're a fan of baseball -- and [you've followed] the game for a while -- this is pretty easy to identify," Hurdle said. "I don't see this as a complex Rubik's cube whatsoever."
Inconsistencies, a lot of them, Hurdle said, have led to the Pirates' seven-game losing streak and the club winning only twice in their last 13 games entering Saturday's contest against the Cubs.
Only one game above .500 but still just three games behind the Cardinals for the final National League Wild Card spot, it's been another rough second half for Pittsburgh, which also struggled last season after a hot start. The Pirates hope last year's fate -- another sub-.500 record -- doesn't await the 2012 squad. But the comparisons are hard to ignore.
There are still inconsistencies that breed losing streaks, so, in that regard, this version of the Pirates is the same as last year's, Hurdle admitted. But the manager also said he's seen improved commitment, focus and preparation after what the Pirates learned from last year's woes. He hopes that soon begins manifesting itself on the field on a consistent basis.
"We've talked about it now for two weeks, and that's what's been going on for two weeks," Hurdle said. "We need to play better ball, we need to have better at-bats and we need to do better things when the game dictates execution."