Giger: Pirates’ McDonald fails to get out of first inning

It’s rare when the major leaguer is the worst player on the field during a minor league rehab assignment, but that was the case with James McDonald on Monday with the Curve.

McDonald had a disastrous outing, failing to make it out of the first inning against Richmond. He walked the game’s first batter on four pitches, walked the second batter, then served up a three-run homer.

About the only thing McDonald did right was pick off a runner at first base. But he also gave up four walks and two hits while retiring only one of the seven batters he faced.

He threw 33 pitches, just 14 strikes, and left Curve manager Carlos Garcia with no choice but to pull him after two/thirds of an inning.

“To me the big thing is health,” McDonald, looking for any kind of positive, said afterward. “My shoulder felt decent, so that’s the biggest thing for me.”

That’s fine. Really, stats don’t matter much in rehab assignments because the goal for the major leaguer is to get healthy again.

But let’s be honest here. When a pitcher who’s already become an enormous disappointment in a very short period of time comes down to Double-A and looks as awful as McDonald did Monday, it has to give the Pirates great concern about his future.

At this point, whether McDonald even has much of a future with the Bucs is a legitimate question.

It’s incredible to think that this guy was one of the best pitchers in the National League the first half of last season, when he had a 2.37 ERA and 9-3 record at the All-Star break. He collapsed in the second half, posting a 7.52 ERA to lose his spot in the rotation, and this year he was 2-2 with a 5.76 ERA in six starts before feeling shoulder discomfort.

McDonald blamed his poor performance Monday in part on a blister that developed on his right middle finger while warming up in the bullpen before the game.

“That’s the thing that sucks,” he said. “Finally get back on the mound, ready to compete and hit a little bump in the road with a blood blister.”

Blisters can be a big deal for a pitcher, so it’s not totally fair to criticize McDonald if indeed he was having problems with one. He kept fidgeting with his finger on occasion when talking to reporters after the game.

Still, the blister sounds like a convenient excuse from a pitcher who has lost his way mentally and is grasping at straws trying to get back to where he was at the beginning of 2012.

McDonald undoubtedly is very talented and has the stuff to pitch effectively in the majors. But the concern with him is whether he’s mentally tough enough to overcome when he does struggle and keep one or two bad outings from crushing his confidence.

McDonald failed to prove he has that intangible last year, and until he does, the Pirates will be gambling keeping him in the rotation.

A peculiar scenario played out Monday when Garcia stepped out of the dugout to remove McDonald in the first inning. The pitcher made a little motion with his right hand, as if to suggest to Garcia that he didn’t want to come out, and the two appeared to exchange words on the mound for a few seconds.

Garcia did not not look happy, then after they finished talking, McDonald patted the manager on the back, as if to try and smooth over the situation.

“It wasn’t like a question,” McDonald said. “It was just like, I didn’t know how many pitches I had really. And once he told me, I was like, oh yeah. He had no choice. He had to take me out. It was a tough decision, but it’s understanding I know what he had to do.”

The Pirates have a policy that if any minor league starter throws 30-35 pitches in an inning, he’s almost always going to be pulled. That’s especially true with a major leaguer on a rehab assignment.

Garcia downplayed the incident after the game, even though it appeared obvious he didn’t appreciate the pitcher initially challenging the decision.

“I don’t get mad,” Garcia said. “I understand the competitor in the guy and the program he wants to follow to be able to continue his progress to go back to Pittsburgh. I understand that. He knows better. You don’t do that that way. Regardless, it’s an outing that he has to get his work and move on. I don’t get mad for that.”

McDonald’s rotten performance Monday didn’t do anything to change the public perception that he is a bust. Much of the Pirates’ fan base has been down on the pitcher since his second-half collapse last season, and with the organization having more starting pitching depth now than it has in many years, it’s questionable whether McDonald can remain a mainstay in the rotation.

“I really never worry about what the public thinks,” McDonald said. “As long as I can go out there that’s all that really matters. [Monday’s game] doesn’t set me back mentally. It’s just like I said before – I don’t really care what the public really thinks.”

What the fans think really doesn’t matter, but how the organization views McDonald at this stage in his development should be something he’s concerned about.

“No,” the pitcher said. “I mean, you can’t worry about things you can’t control. Just keep going forward. Right now my concern is to get healthy, compete at the level I need to compete at.”

Watching him struggle immensely against Double-A hitters Monday, McDonald didn’t appear close to being ready to compete consistently at the major league level.

Cory Giger can be reached at