Pirates lose 8-6 to Double-A affiliate Altoona

To gain more consistency, Pittsburgh Pirates starter James

McDonald thinks he needs to pitch with more of an edge.

A short memory would help, too, after Saturday’s subpar showing

against a minor league lineup in his last spring training

tuneup.

The lanky right-hander was tagged for four runs and three hits

in the first inning, and the Pirates lost to their Double-A Altoona

affiliate 8-6 in their final exhibition game.

Starling Marte hit a grand slam in the second that tied the

score at 4, and Russell Martin also had two hits for

Pittsburgh.

McDonald left after two innings, but all the damage was done in

the first when the Curve sent nine batters to the plate. He gave up

three walks, a wild pitch and a two-run double just inside the

right-field line by Carlos Paulino.

It wasn’t the sort of outing McDonald was looking for heading

into the season after struggling in the second half of 2012.

”I think I need to keep that chip on my shoulder, to never feel

relaxed, never feel at ease on the mound,” McDonald said. ”Just

to keep my foot on the gas really, and keep going at guys.”

The Pirates’ third starter this year after A.J. Burnett and

Wandy Rodriguez, McDonald began the 2012 season strong before

tailing off in the second half with a 3-5 record and 7.52 ERA.

”You always want to learn from your mistakes,” Martin said

about McDonald’s second half last year. ”For him, the best thing

you can have sometimes in baseball is a short-term memory. You’ve

got to forget the bad days and really move on, so he’s got a lot of

memories of him doing well.”

One of McDonald’s biggest problems Saturday was a lack of

first-pitch strikes, manager Clint Hurdle said.

”He knows what he’s got. He’s got the downhill angle on a

fastball. He’s got three other pitches that he can use

effectively,” Hurdle said. ”So today he probably got another

wake-up call in what he needs to do to be successful.”

Altoona scored four runs in the fifth off minor league reliever

Nathan Baker, who was on loan to the Pirates.

Marte, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter entering his first full

season in the majors, finished the exhibition season having reached

base safely in nine of 10 games. Marte said his focus was on plate

discipline this spring and making pitchers throw strikes.

”I’m just trying to help this team as much as possible, to get

on base for the guys behind me,” Marte said through teammate Pedro

Alvarez, who served as a translator.

But Marte’s homer Saturday wasn’t entirely good news for

Pittsburgh – the shot to left came off Pirates lefty reliever Tony

Watson, who pitched an inning for Altoona to get some work.

The Pirates’ first visit since 2000 to their loyal Double-A

affiliate packed Peoples Natural Gas Field in the blue-collar,

west-central Pennsylvania city of Altoona, including fans laid out

on blankets on the grassy hill behind the wall in left on a cool

but bright afternoon. The attendance of 10,016 was the largest in

Curve history.

McDonald’s first inning was as topsy-turvy as the wooden

roller-coaster tracks that towered just beyond the right-field wall

at Lakemont Park, the neighboring amusement park.

McDonald was 0-1 with a 4.19 ERA in five spring starts entering

Saturday. The Curve also stole two bases in the first inning off

him and Martin, who signed as free agent in the offseason.

Already trailing 2-0, McDonald walked Alex Dickerson on a full

count to put runners on first and second for Paulino. He looped a

1-1 pitch just inside the right-field line to score two runs for a

4-0 lead.

Fans in Altoona seemed tortured – many cheered for the clutch

hit, while a few groaned – perhaps upset with seeing McDonald

struggle. McDonald settled down in the second, allowing just a

walk, before departing for the afternoon.

McDonald said that while it may not be evident from Saturday’s

outing, this was one of the better springs of his pro career.

”I’m firmly confident in the fact that when the bell rings,

we’ll be able to reset,” Hurdle said. ”I have every optimism that

James is going to show up there for us.”

Pirates closer Jason Grilli, getting the start for Altoona to

also get in some work, allowed a leadoff single to Marte before

striking out two in a harmless first.

Baker, who pitches for the Curve, was wild in his brief stint

for the parent Pirates. The lefty gave up four runs on four walks,

one hit and two wild pitches to Altoona in the four-run fifth.

Andrew Lambo went 2 for 4 with two runs and an RBI single in the

first for the Curve. He also made a lunging catch on a hard line

drive to left to rob Pirates star Andrew McCutchen of an extra-base

hit.

NOTES: The Pirates and Curve announced in a pregame ceremony

that the player development contract with Altoona has been extended

through the 2018 season. Altoona has been the Pirates’ Double-A

affiliate since 1998. … Burnett is scheduled to make his first

career opening day start when the Pirates host the Cubs on Monday.

It will be Chicago’s first opening day visit to Pittsburgh since

April 7, 1978. … Altoona center fielder and leadoff hitter Mel

Rojas Jr. is the son of former major league reliever Mel Rojas. …

The Curve announced Saturday that it will host the 2014 Eastern

League All-Star game.