PITTSBURGH (AP) — James McDonald gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a superb start on Thursday night.
He’s been doing that all season.
The fact he finished the game? That was a first.
McDonald pitched his first career complete game, Garrett Jones hit one of Pittsburgh’s three home runs and the Pirates won for the fourth time in five games, 9-1 over the Minnesota Twins.
McDonald (6-3) continued his breakthrough season by allowing one run, six hits and no walks with five strikeouts, lowering his ERA to 2.19. He has allowed one run or fewer in nine of his 14 starts this season.
“He was lights-out today,” said Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who homered. “He’s been pretty good all year, but when his breaking pitch is working the way it was today for strikes and for chase, and he’s locating his fastball the way he was, he’s one of the best out there. And today’s performance is as good a performance as you’ll have from any pitcher.”
McDonald was 18-20 in 95 career starts heading into this season and is now among the NL leaders in ERA. He credited the additions of two veterans — pitcher A.J. Burnett and catcher Rod Barajas — to the Pittsburgh clubhouse this season for helping him finally harness his long-tantalizing potential.
It was after his most recent start — one in which he allowed one run but lasted only six innings — that Barajas sat him down.
“He told me I need to be that guy who wants seven to nine innings every night out,” McDonald said. “Tonight after the seventh, that just went through my brain the whole time, and I really wanted that.
“I could see he really wanted me to finish the game, all my teammates wanted me to finish the game — and I finally believed in myself I could finish the game.”
It was the Pirates’ first complete game this season.
Jones had an RBI single in the first inning and a two-run homer that made it 8-1 in the seventh. Alvarez added a shot that traveled an estimated 435 feet to right-center two batters later. Barajas had a two-run homer in the sixth.
Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen came up a home run short of the cycle, scoring two runs and driving in three.
The surging Pirates have won seven of their past eight series and four consecutive series at home. They moved within two games of first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central.
Justin Morneau had two hits for the Twins, who have lost six of eight.
Winners of 10 of its past 12 at home, Pittsburgh rebounded from a loss Wednesday by pounding out 12 hits. Jones, Alvarez and Alex Presley all had two.
With two outs in the first, McCutchen tripled to right-center just past the diving Ben Revere. He scored when Jones followed with an infield single off Minnesota starter Liam Hendriks.
“I feel prepared; I’m throwing well in warmups then I get out to the game and something changes,” Hendriks said. “I give up a couple of runs before I get in that groove and get my aggressiveness going.”
An inning later, McCutchen came up with the bases loaded and two outs and hit a similar hard, deep liner. This time, he pulled it to left for a three-run double.
Barajas snapped an 0-for-13 slump with his seventh homer that followed Alvarez’s leadoff single in the sixth.
That prompted Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire to lift Hendriks (0-4), who remained winless in 10 career starts. Hendriks was charged with six runs — three earned — and eight hits. He did not walk a batter and had three strikeouts.
“As the story goes,” Gardenhire said, “if you don’t pitch, you get whacked.”
“I know we didn’t make a play behind him there but there were rockets flying everywhere,” Gardenhire added.
Jones, a former Twin, homered for the first time since June 3 after McCutchen singled to lead off the seventh. Alvarez’s homer was his fifth in his past five games and team-high 13th this season.
Minnesota got its run in the fourth when Ryan Doumit’s two-out single scored Trevor Plouffe.
But that was the only time they could get to McDonald.
“Just from last year to this year, it’s almost like night and day,” Jones said of McDonald. “He’s learned to harness his stuff and trust his stuff — and he’s got great stuff. .. It’s impressive to watch the way he’s going after hitters and being aggressive and being confident.”
NOTES: LHP Brian Duensing will start for the Twins on Saturday in Cincinnati. It will be his first start of the season after 30 relief appearances. He has 50 starts in his four-year career. … Minnesota C Joe Mauer (bruised right quad) was not in the lineup for the third straight game, although Gardenhire said he was available to pinch-hit. … Morneau stole second base in the sixth, his first since 2007. … Pittsburgh hosts Detroit to conclude its interleague play this weekend. The Tigers took two of three from the Pirates in Detroit last month. … The Twins travel to Cincinnati, where RHP Nick Blackburn (3-4, 7.48) faces the Reds’ Homer Bailey (5-4, 4.03) in the opener Friday.