A.J. Burnett may not have been the stopper that he usually is on Thursday. But even without having his best stuff, he put a bit of a charge back into the Pittsburgh Pirates. From looking dead in the water to winning two straight games and regaining their position in the wild card chase, the Pirates seem to be playing with a slightly renewed sense of confidence that wasn't there for a couple of weeks. And there was one player on the roster who really needed a confidence boost, and that was James McDonald.
McDonald has been an absolute disaster since the All-Star break and it was all epitomized in his last start against the San Diego Padres when he gave up a 7-1 lead in one inning. He came into this game facing a St. Louis Cardinals team that is right on the heels of the Pirates in the standings. They needed a big start from McDonald and that is exactly what they got.
Six innings of two hit baseball. That's what the Pirates got out of McDonald on Friday night. He struck out seven and walked just three batters. He never really even found himself in a significant amount of trouble. Allen Craig doubled with one out in the fourth inning but he was thrown out at third trying to advance on a ball that got away from Michael McKenry. Then, he issued a walk in the fifth inning to put two men on but quickly got out of that. Quite simply, he was the McDonald of old on this night.
A fantastic start was needed out of McDonald for more than one reason. Not only to boost his confidence, but also because his offense didn't provide him with much wiggle room. The Pirates have had a good amount of success facing Jake Westbrook this year but Friday was a different story. Just one inning made all the difference. He was all over the place in the fourth inning. Travis Snider walked to start the inning before Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones hit back to back singles to load the bases with no outs. The first run came home on a wild pitch by Westbrook. The second run came home on a passed ball by Tony Cruz who was in for the injured Yadier Molina which made all the difference defensively.
The game almost got away from the Pirates in the seventh inning when Chris Resop was called upon to relieve McDonald. A single by Carlos Beltran and a double by David Freese put the tying run in scoring position with no outs. Daniel Descalso followed with a fly out to left field that most people would have been able to tag and score on, but opposing players have already learned not to test the strong arm of Starling Marte. That allowed Resop to give up just one run on a ground out by Cruz before Juan Cruz came on to finish out the inning.
Everyone made a big deal about how the series against the Cincinnati Reds was the biggest series of the year. That was true at the time but now this one is. And from now until the end of the season, every series is going to be the most important series of the season. A win on Friday guarantees that the Pirates can't be passed by the Cardinals in the standings in this series. However, the San Francisco Giants are still just one game back.