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Pirates beat Reds 4-1 to get to .500 on the season

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James McDonald tossed eight shutout innings and the offense contributed plenty of two-out lightning for the fourth Pirates win in a row.

James McDonald only has one complete game shutout in his professional career, with the Low-A Columbus (Ga.) Catfish in 2006. So of course he wanted the chance for his first in the Majors on Monday afternoon. But McDonald would have to be satisfied with setting a Major League career high with eight shutout innings.

"Every pitcher wants to get to the 8th in order to go to the 9th," McDonald said when asked by a reporter. "Any pitcher is going to say 'I want to go back out there.' But like I said, the coach knows best."

Before Monday's 4-1 Pirates victory over the division-leading Cincinnati Reds, manager Clint Hurdle said about his starting pitcher, "This is not the James McDonald they saw last year."

McDonald proved his skipper right and got the Pirates to a .500 record of 24-24. The right-hander delivered eight shutout innings, the most in his career, and scattered five Reds hits to keep the issue far from doubt. The gem completed a stellar month of May for James McDonald, in which he had a 1.54 ERA (the second-best in the Majors this month), 39 strikeouts and just 8 walks in 35 innings.

More numbers to demonstrate McDonald's domination: The Reds pushed runners into scoring position in just two innings, and McDonald retired the last 12 Reds hitters he faced. McDonald also generated 13 swings-and-misses (including some curveballs that sent Reds hitters flailing) and averaged just under 13 pitches per inning.

It was an incredibly efficient and stellar start for a pitcher who was known more for his inefficiency last year (his 16.9 pitches per inning in 2011 were the 7th-worst in the Majors). He hit the zone for 66 percent first-pitch strikes on the day, a very good number that gave McDonald an advantage, and decreased his ERA on the season to 2.20, placing him in the top 10 among Major League starters this season.

"When you [throw] strike one, strike two, and the count is in your favor, they don't know what's coming," McDonald said. "It could be slider, curveball, changeup, fastball, anything. The majority of time when it's 1-0 or 2-0, you know what's coming: fastball. So that's help me a lot this year, getting ahead of guys."

But the most impressive part of the performance, in Clint Hurdle's eyes, was McDonald's ability to bounce back from trouble in the 3rd and 5th innings. McDonald allowed the first two men on base in both of those frames, then got three straight outs to keep the Reds' half of the scoreboard lined with zeroes.

"It's huge! He might not be around in the 6th. He might not be around in the 7th with the way that team can swing the bat," Hurdle said. "Those two situations, they can turn on you dynamically and they can turn on you in a hurry."

Those tough frames in the 3rd and 5th were part of the reason Hurdle removed McDonald after eight innings. The manager said there was "not much" consideration given to bringing back McDonald for the 9th, due to those longer innings, hot weather and high pitch count.

Offense Strikes First

McDonald was helped by a Pirates offense that gave him some early breathing room. Neil Walker singled in the 1st inning and came around to score on a two-out Pedro Alvarez opposite-field double down the left field line. Garrett Jones came up next with an RBI single that scored Alvarez and gave the Pirates a multi-run 1st-inning lead for the second day in a row.

The Pirates added on in the 2nd. Rod Barajas led off with a single down the left field line. Then Clint Barmes popped up, McDonald reached on a fielder's choice, and Jose Tabata drew a walk. Walker got another hit with an RBI double that hugged the left-field line and scored McDonald for a 3-0 lead.

The next inning, Pedro Alvarez doubled once again, this time a pull shot down the right field line that was a few feet from clearing the fence. Two batters later, Rod Barajas collected another single to right field, scoring Alvarez. In his last 12 games, Barajas has earned a .390 batting average an about a 1.000 OPS to improve on his early-season struggles. Barajas, Walker and Alvarez all collected two hits in the victory.

"I'm just trying to chip in," said the Pirates' veteran catcher, "Not trying to put the team on my back or anything."

All four Pirates runs were scored with two outs, give James McDonald a 4-0 cushion through three innings. It was the second-straight day the Pirates struck for double-digit hits.

"Having a lead is nice, but you have to tell yourself you can't ease up," McDonald said. "Just as quickly as it was 4-0, it could be 4-4, so I have to stay on my toes and go after those guys the same way I'd go after them if it was a 1-0 game or 0-0 game."

One Little Issue

The only flaw in McDonald's game today? He struck out twice at the plate, both on four pitches.

"I was being smart today. It was hot," McDonald joked coyly to laughs from the gathered reporters. There was a hinge of truth, as McDonald did just finish throwing 102 pitches on a 90-degree, sunny Monday afternoon.

But McDonald didn't need to support himself with the bat on this day. He threw 64 strikes and didn't allow any Reds baserunners after the 5th inning. The 27-year-old exited to a standing ovation from the sparse crowd of 14,792, in what could be described as the crowning of a new Pirates ace. Once Tony Watson (who allowed the lone Reds run on a Chris Heisey RBI single) and Joel Hanrahan completed the 9th inning, the Bucs sat just three games back of the first-place Reds in the Central division.

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