08/15/12 1:55 AM ET
In unfamiliar territory, Bucs poised for stretch run
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Extra rest allows McDonald to mentally regroup
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.
"I want to see resilience, perseverance, fight, courage and commitment." -- manager Clint Hurdle's stretch-drive checklist for the Pirates.
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."
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.