PITTSBURGH - There were times earlier in his career when James McDonald would run into trouble and innings would slow to a crawl. Even worse, runners would disappear, and not in a good way.
Too much thinking. Not enough attacking.
"Certain guys got up and I would think about it, 'What if this happens? What if this happens?'" McDonald said. "Now I just don't care. It's a hitter up there and I've got a job to do and that's get him out."
He's doing it as well as anybody in baseball at the moment.
McDonald scattered five hits over eight shutout innings and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds, 4-1, on Monday to climb back to .500. The 27-year-old right-hander wiggled free of a pair of two-on, no-out jams in the third and the fifth before retiring the final 12 batters he faced.
"I think my mental approach is different," McDonald said after improving to 4-2.
So are the results.
Pittsburgh has worked diligently with McDonald over the last two seasons trying to get him to corral his control issues, believing he has the talent to become a No. 1 starter down the road.
He appears to be on his way, trimming his ERA to 2.20 while quieting Cincinnati's high-powered offense. The Reds, who hit 17 homers during a seven-game homestand that concluded with a win over Colorado on Sunday, had just one extra-base hit.
"He didn't have his best stuff today, but we didn't either," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. "He threw a good game against us. We weren't swinging real good against him."
Pedro Alvarez, Rod Barajas and Neil Walker had two hits apiece and each drove in a run for the Pirates, who have won a season-high four straight to improve to 24-24. Joel Hanrahan got the final out for his 12th save as Pittsburgh reached .500 for the first time since the fourth game.
"I like the direction we're headed," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm easy to please and hard to satisfy."
Bronson Arroyo (2-3) lasted just four innings on a sweltering day in which he struggled with his command. He threw 79 pitches over four innings in his shortest stint of the season and had trouble working efficiently.
Though he avoided walks, Arroyo frequently had to work deep into counts. The Pirates wasted little time pouncing on him, jumping to an early 2-0 lead an RBI double by Alvarez on a 3-2 changeup and a run-scoring single by Garrett Jones.
"I didn't have a whole lot today," Arroyo said. "But that being said I still felt like I could have put myself in position where I could have gotten out of those [early] innings and only given up one or two runs."
Ryan Hanigan had two hits for the Reds, who fell for just the second time in their last 10 games.
The Pirates have remained competitive despite the most woeful offense in baseball, though they are finally showing signs of life. Pittsburgh posted a season-high 10 runs to complete a sweep of the Cubs on Sunday then followed it up by giving McDonald an early cushion.
Walker added an RBI double in the second before Barajas made it 4-0 in the third when he singled home Alvarez.
McDonald didn't let the chance to pitch with a somewhat comfortable lead go to waste. The Pirates came in scoring three runs or less in six of his nine outings this season, one of the major reasons his record has lagged despite the best start of his career.
Cincinnati put runners on first and second with no outs in the third, but after a visit from pitching coach Ray Searage, McDonald grabbed Drew Stubbs' bunt and fired to third to get the lead runner. He then struck out Wilson Valdez and escaped when Joey Votto flied out to center.
McDonald found himself in the same situation in the fifth and didn't need a pep talk from Searage. Pinch-hitter Mike Costanzo popped to short, Stubbs struck out and Valdez bounced a harmless grounder to third.
Barajas credited McDonald's new mindset for his success.
"The last thing you want to do is if you do get in a jam you start thinking about what you've done wrong," Barajas said. "He gets a couple hits, he gets right back on the mound and it gets to the point where I have to slow him down."
It was the last murmur of a threat against McDonald, who breezed through his final three innings, receiving a rousing ovation from the small but vocal crowd at PNC Park while walking into the dugout following the top of the eighth.
Though he wanted to make a bid for his first career shutout, McDonald didn't argue when Hurdle turned the game over to the bullpen in the ninth.
"I'm just going to let him grow," Hurdle said of McDonald. "I'm just along for the ride and I'm enjoying it."
Notes: The Pirates' four-game winning streak is their longest since a four-game run last June 21-25. ... The series continues tonight with Cincinnati's Homer Bailey (3-3, 4.19 ERA) facing Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton (2-5, 4.27).