PITTSBURGH -- Sports teams are often said to be playing up -- or down -- to their opposition. Meaning, they reach the level the competition demands.Could a pitcher also do the same? Case in point: James McDonald, who in his start prior to Tuesday night's had walked the bases full of Padres in the first inning of an inevitable loss. McDonald has sandwiched that poor outing in San Diego between two knockout shutout stints against St. Louis, including his seven innings of two-hit ball in Tuesday night's 9-0 Pirates win at PNC Park. "Yeah, I would agree that 80 percent of it is mental," McDonald said after pitching the Bucs back within two games of the National League Wild Card postseason spot held by the Cardinals. "The main focus for me tonight was just being aggressive. "I got ahead of guys. But if the first pitch wasn't a strike, I fired the next one in there. The work I did in the bullpen between starts translated into this game, and I'll try to carry that into the next start." Don't think that between-starts sideline work was any complicated subterfuge. "It was just about staying back," McDonald said, "and letting the arm do all the work, without trying to do too much." In any case, McDonald did another number on the Cardinals. A very low number: Eleven days ago, he had blanked them for six innings on two hits, bringing his season's work against the reigning World Series champions to 13 shutout innings, four hits and four walks allowed and 13 strikeouts. "That's a very good offensive club. They've got the World Series MVP hitting seventh in the lineup," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said of the Cardinals and their third baseman, David Freese. "And James went through it professionally. He has a switch somewhere, I'm not sure what kind. But we've seen it before. When he throws strikes, he's very good, very clean, very hard to hit." "He's very effective," said Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker, who wore one of the collars liberally distributed by McDonald. "We had a game plan of making him throw strikes, keeping him in the zone. He did that. His last few starts, it looked like he was very erratic, and today, it felt like we would wait to take a strike and it was strike one right away. When he's doing that, he's tough." Added Freese: "He was one of the best [when I faced him in Class A], and he's one the best now. He had pretty good command of his heater, and I think that's what he goes off of. When he can throw strikes with all his pitches, he's going to be effective." Following a spectacular first half, which he concluded with a record of 9-3 and a 2.37 ERA, McDonald may have let himself get just a bit complacent. He had been so dominant, perhaps he got the subconscious idea that even on his off-days, he could be better than most lineups. Whatever the case, his first four starts following the All-Star break yanked him back to reality. He allowed an earned run an inning and has had to work hard to return to the level he'd enjoyed prior to the break. "James needs to continue to seek greatness and accept nothing less," Hurdle said. "He needs to want to be the best he can be every time he goes out there. That will take the focus he had tonight."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.