AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH - There was a time in James McDonald's career, any point before a month ago actually, when the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander would get two strikes on a batter and get cute.
Rather than stay on the attack, McDonald tried to paint corners. It led to long at bats and short outings.
In spring training, pitching coach Ray Searage decided it was time for a chat.
"I said `Dude you've got to get a little bit more pitch efficient, get the hitter out in four pitches, induce contact with three pitches or less,'" Searage said.
More importantly, Searage told the talented but inconsistent 27-year-old to trust his stuff and trust his catcher. Do both and Searage promised McDonald he could become the kind of guy the Pirates could build a rotation around.
The goal is to make McDonald more efficient, not turn him into strikeout pitcher.
It's happening anyway.
McDonald (2-1) has 25 strikeouts over his last three starts for the Pirates, who open a three-game series on Tuesday against Washington.
The soft-spoken McDonald insists he's not trying to bowl batters over. His preference would be to induce opponents to make contact early and rely on his defense but allows "if I need a strikeout, I can go get one."
So can his teammates.
A month into the season Pittsburgh is a respectable 14th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (7.4). Heady territory for a team that was 28th in the same category a year ago.
While the addition of veterans Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett certainly helps _ Bedard is in the top 15 in baseball in both strikeouts (37) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.79) _ so is the maturation of McDonald.
General manager Neal Huntington praised McDonald for embracing the team's mindset of pitching to contact rather than thinking strikeout the second a batter steps in the box.
Strange as it sounds, it's one of the main reasons McDonald's whiff total has spiked.
Rather than try to miss bats, McDonald is pounding the strike zone. It's allowed him to get ahead quickly and when he gets a favorable count he no longer tries to get hitters to chase. Instead, he takes it right to them.
"There's a distinct difference between trying to get the strikeout from pitch one, trying to make the perfect pitch and more often than not you get yourself in trouble because you're 2-0 instead of 0-2 and not trusting your stuff and letting it play," Huntington said. "James has done a great job this year of getting early count outs but when he gets to two strikes, burying hitters."
It's something that's permeated the staff, thanks in part to the quick rapport the pitchers have built with catcher Rod Barajas, who signed a free agent last winter.
Barajas spent spring training getting comfortable and the trust level built quickly. Having caught just about every kind of pitcher imaginable during his 14-year career sped along the process.
"I've spent a lot of time around the guys, around the coaches, picking everyone's brain," Barajas said. "Going into the season I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what they liked to do, what they could do and they couldn't do. Once the season started, just look at the results. Things seem to be going smoothly."
True, though there are days the kinks are still evident. Barajas and Bedard engaged in a game-long battle of wills against St. Louis last week, leading to a series of visits to the mound that slowed the game to a snail's pace.
"If they were in the same library, they weren't reading the same book," manager Clint Hurdle said with a laugh.
It hardly mattered, Bedard struck out 11 batters, including a team-record seven straight at one point on a day the Pirates set a franchise record with 17 strikeouts in a nine-inning game.
Though Bedard is a bit more methodical than Pittsburgh's other starters, the Pirates have no problem being patient if he continues to flummox hitters.
Bedard is hardly overpowering, but he makes up for it with precision and a dash of craftiness.
"He'll throw a breaking ball 3-1 for a strike," Searage said. "Then when it's 0-2 you're thinking breaking ball but he's zipping a fastball by you at 91 and you're thinking `what just happened?'"
All those strikeouts have helped keep Pittsburgh competitive even as its offense has struggled. The Pirates have a 3.44 ERA _ seventh in the National League _ to stay within shouting distance of respectability.
Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, but there is a ripple effect throughout the organization. The team's farm system is littered with fireballers _ namely former first-round picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon _ and watching Bedard and McDonald go to work serves as a study guide of sorts on how to make the transformation from thrower to pitcher.
"They see what a James McDonald is doing with the stuff he has and the ability to put players away quickly," Huntington said, "it does help."
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