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Pirates take series from Twins 9-1 as Bucs bats come alive

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James McDonald delivers another quality start and gets help with homers from Alvarez, Jones and Barajas.

On his 31st birthday, Garrett Jones delivered a gift all Pirates fans could enjoy: a line-drive home run as part of a 9-1 Thursday night victory over the Minnesota Twins. Jones' dinger joined homers from Pedro Alvarez and Rod Barajas as the Bucs notched 12 hits for the second time in the series win.

But the standing ovations on this hot summer night were reserved for McDonald, who recorded his first career complete game, adding another milestone to his breakout 2012 season. McDonald allowed just six hits and one run while notching five strikeouts. And despite getting first-pitch strikes in just half of the Twins' at-bats, McDonald gave up zero walks for the first time all season. He became the first Pirates pitcher since 1900 to give up three or fewer runs in each of his first 14 starts, per ESPN's Steve Berthaiume.

After his career-high 120 pitches, McDonald noted a conversation he had with Barajas after his last start.

"He told me I needed to be that guy that wants seven-to-nine innings every time out," said McDonald, who threw a career-high 120 pitches. "I kind of really wanted that, and I could see that he wanted me to finish the game... when I got out there, it felt like it was the first inning all over again."

McDonald only pitched into the 8th inning in one outing last year, and his improved efficiency was evident in the fact that his longest frame was 17 pitches. So did manager Clint Hurdle have any indecision about keeping McDonald in for the 9th?

"No," Hurdle said.

Fair enough.

"He started smelling it in the 7th," Hurdle continued. "He was even working quicker between pitches in the 7th and 8th than he was previously in the game. We had a feel for it, figured he could handle the pitch count."


The Pirates' right-hander was able stay aggressive (he found himself in only 3 three-ball counts) partly because his lineup supplied him with run support early and often. In the 1st inning, Andrew McCutchen generated some two-out lightning with an opposite-field triple past the glove of a diving Ben Revere, racing into third base with his helmet flying off. Jones followed with an RBI infield single on a ground ball that hit off the glove of second baseman Alexi Casilla.

The Bucs tacked on a few more the next inning. McDonald reached on a fielder's choice, and some more two-out power followed. Alex Presley singled to center, and Neil Walker loaded the bases when he reached on an error by shortstop Brian Dozier. McCutchen cleared those bases with a double to left-center, giving McDonald and the Pirates a 4-0 lead.


In the fourth inning, the Twins' Trevor Plouffe smacked a two-out double over McCutchen's head that hopped to the center-field fence. Former Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit then knocked in Plouffe with a ground-ball single that bounced just past the glove of a diving Walker to drive in Minnesota's only run. It was the lone crooked number charged to McDonald on the evening. His catcher said he has worked on ensuring "J-Mac" doesn't get too hung up on the bad pitches like he did last year.

"He still does it at times; you'll see him throw a bad curveball and get angry," Barajas said. "I just give him him a look and say 'Hey, you're fine. Let's get that next pitch,' and he's able to put it behind him and make that next pitch... you need to have that short memory."


Barajas not only kept his pitcher confident, he helped him relax by providing some run support, homering to left-center in the 6th. He joked that he just wanted to keep the ball out of the reach of Gold-Glove candidate Denard Span, who saved two runs with a diving catch of a Barajas fly ball Wednesday night.

"It was nice to give us a little more cushion," Barajas said about his 7th homer this season. "It was a three-run game at the time, and any time you can add on and make things that much harder for the opposing team, it's great."

That was the last pitch for Twins starter Liam Hendricks, the young righty who entered Thursday with a 6.99 ERA in nine career starts. Hendricks surrendered eight hits in five-plus innings, but just three of his six runs allowed were earned, due to Dozier's error.

"He's a sinker baller, he's got to keep the ball down," Jones said of the opposing starter. "We were just patient, waiting for a good pitch to hit, and guys were not missing him. When he kept the ball up, that's when we were getting to him."

McCutchen started the next inning with a single, his team-high third hit that left him a homer shy of the cycle. Then Jones, the birthday boy, smacked a line-drive homer down the right-field line that cleared the Clemente Wall in all of three seconds.

"Every birthday is special," Jones said. "To be at the Major League level and contributing means a lot. It's a little extra special, I guess, when you can get a home run."

After Casey McGehee grounded out, Alvarez hit the longest shot of the night, a towering 435-foot home run to right that exited the stadium, but fell just short of reaching the Allegheny River. It was Alvarez's team-leading 13th homer of the season, and put the Pirates ahead 9-1.


That was more than enough for McDonald. He retired 13 of the last 15 hitters he faced, and got Twins hitters to whiff on 10 pitches on the night. His last pitch got Doumit to line out among unified cheers of "LET'S GO BUCS" from the standing 21,563 fans, the largest crowd at PNC Park for a weeknight game since Aug. 17, 2011. Those fans are witnessing the transformation of the 27-year-old turning into a staff ace.

"Last year, all the discussion [was] about lack of length, not being able to pitch efficiently," Hurdle said. "He's knocking things down this year one at a time. This was another one to knock down. I thought it was the appropriate opportunity. It was a good hot night, he was loose... got himself in a position to do it and he did it."

McDonald is making his case for the NL All-Star team with a 2.19 ERA (fourth-best in the National League) and a curveball that is keeping hitters to a .102 batting average, second in baseball only to Washington's Gio Gonzalez.

But McDonald says he is not focused on league-highs or All-Star Games, but just trying to help his team keep pace. His Bucs are two games behind the Central-leading Cincinnati Reds and one game out of an NL Wild Card spot. A total of 6 of McDonald's last 11 starts have gone seven innings or more.

"Recently, Rod gave me the mentality that I need to be the guy that goes seven innings every time," McDonald said. "Before, I didn't even think about that. Now, I expect seven innings every time."

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