By John Perrotto
John Russell had high hopes for James McDonald’s first start with the Pirates on Thursday night. The right-hander exceeded every expectation of his new manager.
“He pitched a great game,” Russell said. “This is what I saw from him two years ago and he’s even better now. That’s why I’m so excited we were able to trade for him.”
McDonald pitched seven scoreless innings as the Pirates beat the Colorado Rockies 5-1 at PNC Park. He allowed four hits, walked only one and struck out eight, seven of the punchouts coming in the first three innings when he overpowered the Rockies in his first time through their batting order.
McDonald made his major-league debut at PNC Park on Sept. 17, 2008, pitching one perfect inning of relief for the Los Angeles Dodgers and striking out two. McDonald caught Russell’s eye then and the skipper has been pining for the 25-year-old ever since.
Russell got his wish last Saturday when the Pirates acquired McDonald and minor-league outfielder Andrew Lambo from the Dodgers in a trade for closer Octavio Dotel.
McDonald, at least in his first start, looks like he is ready to provide the power arm the Pirates starting rotation has been sorely lacking.
McDonald’s fastball averaged 93 mph, topped out at 96 and never dropped below 91 during an 89-pitch outing. The Rockies went 2-for-9 against the heater and he threw it for a first-pitch strike four of five times to right-handed hitters.
However, McDonald also showed an outstanding curveball and a solid changeup. He threw the curve for first-pitch strikes four times in five tries and each of the seven changes he threw to right-handers were strikes.
McDonald, for his part, didn’t have much to say about his outing, deflecting credit by saying, “the team played great and (catcher Chris) Snyder called a great game. We were in rhythm together all night.
However, the normally reserved Russell gladly broke down McDonald’s start.
“He mixed his pitches really well but what really impressed me was his changeup,” Russell said. “He didn’t have the change two years ago but it’s a real weapon for him now. That changeup adds a whole different dimension. Before, you could read whether his fastball or curveball was coming out of his hand. Now, hitters have to wait on the changeup and when they have to do that and also look for two other quality-type pitches that makes it very difficult.”
—John Perrotto is the editor-in-chief of BaseballProspectus.com and baseball columnist at the Beaver County Times.—