The Pittsburgh Pirates got another solid pitching performance as their season-opening series against the Chicago Cubs continued, but now enter what looks to be a shakier part of their rotation.
James McDonald may be the biggest question mark of all.
McDonald looks to put a disastrous second half of 2012 behind him in Thursday's finale at PNC Park against a Cubs team that was one of many to take advantage of his post-All-Star break struggles.
McDonald seemed like he might be establishing himself as a front-line starter in the first half last season, going 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA that was the NL's fourth-best.
He didn't make the All-Star team, then looked nothing like a budding ace after the break. McDonald went 3-5 with a 7.08 ERA in 12 starts from July 13 until being yanked from the rotation after allowing four runs over 3 2-3 innings in a 7-4 loss to the Cubs on Sept. 14.
He finished the season with one bullpen appearance, allowing three runs without recording an out Sept. 21 at Houston.
"I saw all the bad things that went wrong and the stuff I was thinking, so I'll remember those memories and not have those fill my head when I get into a bad situation," McDonald told the Pirates' official website. "From that, I know how to get out of jams, and if I'm in a slump, I'll know how to get out of that better."
McDonald (12-8, 4.21 ERA) got into plenty of jams against the Cubs (1-1) in three second-half starts, going 0-2 with a 7.04 ERA while allowing 29 baserunners in 15 1-3 innings.
Even with his ugly two-month stretch after the break, McDonald generally pitched well at home, finishing 6-2 with a 2.73 ERA and limiting opponents to a .199 average.
Manager Clint Hurdle seems to like the right-hander's chances of bouncing back.
"We'll know more (Thursday), but I have every confidence in the world that with the lessons he's learned, he'll take the ball and be aggressive, and take us deep into the game," Hurdle said.
McDonald is the first of a trio of uncertainty in Pittsburgh's rotation - Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke will follow - but the Pirates' top two starters pitched well. A.J. Burnett struck out 10 over 5 2-3 innings of a 3-1 loss Monday, then Wandy Rodriguez tossed 6 2-3 two-hit innings in Wednesday's 3-0 victory.
The Pirates (1-1) are 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position, but that's still better than what the Cubs have done. They're 0 for 13 with eight strikeouts.
"We haven't gotten a hit yet with men in scoring position in two games, so we've got to get better at that," manager Dale Sveum said.
Travis Wood (6-13, 4.27) can empathize with McDonald's rough second half. After going 4-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 10 starts before the break, Wood went 2-10 with a 5.07 ERA the rest of the way.
The left-hander also gave up six runs, 12 hits and seven walks over 8 1-3 innings in his final two spring training starts.
Wood might not mind facing the Pirates in his season debut. He had a 2.70 ERA in three starts against Pittsburgh last season, striking out 20 in 16 2-3 innings and holding hitters to a .140 average.
He allowed only Pedro Alvarez's double and three walks over six innings of a 12-2 win Sept. 7 at PNC.
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