Every semi-successful team has a 1-2 punch. The Penguins terrorize goalies with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while the Steelers attack opposing quarterbacks with James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley.
For the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates, their 1-2 punch includes AJ Burnett and James McDonald. Lately, the Pirates have lacked that second quality start in the rotation after Burnett, and the win-loss record has certainly been affected. Of all the issues the pitching staff has faced since the All-Star break, James McDonald has easily been the biggest disappointment. While Burnett is the Ace of the staff, McDonald is just as crucial to the Pirates' success down the final stretch.
Before the All-Star break, James McDonald was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 31 walks in 110 innings. Usually following Burnett in the rotation, McDonald helped the Pirates get out to a 48-37 record before the midsummer classic.
After the break, however, McDonald fell apart.
In his last seven starts, McDonald is 2-2 with a 7.30 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 24 walks in 34 innings. Despite pitching 76 fewer innings in the second half of the season, McDonald has given up one more run (30) than the 110 innings he pitched in the first half. His control has been abysmal (as indicated by the high walk count), his velocity has been down, and his batting average against is nearly 100 points higher.
These poor outings have contributed to the Pirates going 19-18 since the break including a 4-7 stint during their last home stand. While AJ Burnett continues to prevent any notorious 10 game losing streaks, James McDonald and the rest of the staff have done nothing to turn a slide into a winning streak.
Make no mistake, the second spot in the rotation is reserved for McDonald. There were a few reports last week speculating on moving McDonald to the bullpen and allowing Kevin Correia to take his place. Do you really think that's the pedigree of a winning baseball team? The Pirates cannot be a contender with Jeff Karstens, Wandy Rodriguez, Erik Bedard or Kevin Correia as their second starter.
The Pirates need James McDonald.
The good news is, the Pirates may be getting the old McDonald back. Facing the best lineup in the National League, McDonald pitched six innings of two-hit ball while striking out seven. Even more encouraging was his fastball, touching 93-94 with regularity while his curveball continued to strikeout batters at a high rate. McDonald's start gave the Pirates a 2-1 win on Friday and, coupled with the 19 inning bonanza on Sunday, contributed to a crucial series win on the road.
If this is a resurgence from "J-Mac", it's coming at the perfect time. With Burnett and McDonald starting Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, the Pirates have an opportunity to win back to back road series before coming home to the struggling Milwaukee Brewers. As it stands, Burnett and McDonald would be the first two starters to face St. Louis the following week in what is sure to be another pivotal showdown for a Wild-Card spot.
If the Pirates are hoping to claim their first playoff berth since 1992, they will need James McDonald to be the second and possible, knockout punch down the stretch.