by Malik Vincent

Since being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, right-handed starting pitcher James McDonald has been a key part of a much-improved Pirates rotation in 2011.

Principally, it is the team’s starting rotation that’s responsible for a pennant race push this season, and the hope of rupturing a nasty 18-year streak of futility.

STRONG PERFORMANCE—James McDonald works against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning, July 25, in Atlanta. McDonald struck out a career-high nine in 5 1/3 scoreless innings as the Pirates kept pace in the tight NL Central race defeating the Braves 3-1. McDonald (6-4) has the most strikeouts by a Pirates pitcher in almost two years. He gave up eight hits but did not walk a batter and ended each of the first five innings with strikeouts. McDonald has not allowed a run in two straight wins. (AP Photo/John Amis)

An 11th round pick of the Dodgers in 2002, McDonald played in every level of their minor-league system. He joined the Pirates in On July 31, 2010 and made his first start, on Aug. 5 against the Rockies. In that 5-1 victory, he racked up a career-high eight strikeouts, while pitching six scoreless innings.

“(The Dodgers) got me prepared to pitch in the big leagues,” McDonald said. “They gave me an opportunity to learn the thing that I needed to, to be effective. They basically taught me how to pitch. I’m always thankful for them.”

This year, McDonald leads the club in strikeouts with 85 and is 6-4 on the season with a 4.15 ERA.

He features a low- to mid-90s fastball with good downward movement and a developing out pitch in his curveball. With his towering mound presence, he likes to keep batters off-balanced by changing speeds with his curve and a high-70s or low 80s changeup.

McDonald, 26, is originally from Long Beach, CA and went to Polytechnic High School, which produced hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn and other baseball greats. He acknowledges that his surroundings were rough, until his junior year.

But it was while he was a kid, growing up in Long Beach, that he knew he would play baseball. Ironyically, McDonald said, he didn’t grow his final three inches until he began playing pro ball, but his ability to throw harder than everyone else on the field convinced him that he would pitch.

“Both sides of my family were into sports,” McDonald said. “When I was a kid, my dad told me that there were baseball sign-ups and asked me if I wanted to play. I agreed to it. And from there, I fell in love with it and decided that I was going to play from there on. Now it’s my life.”

Now, as a major-league pitcher in the midst of a successful campaign this summer, McDonald has decided that he wants to give back. Earlier this year, he visited youth baseball players at the Josh Gibson Field that is located behind the Ammons recreation center in the Hill District.

“I’ve been talking to Pirates management about the different ways that I can help,” McDonald added. “I discuss with them how there can be money put forth to renovate fields and facilities and to put on instructional clinics so that young baseball players in the Black community can have the opportunities that I’ve had.”

His first cousin Darnell, also plays in the majors for the Boston Red Sox. The outfielder, whose club travelled to Pittsburgh to take on the Bucs at PNC Park for a three-game set on June 24, fell to McDonald as a strikeout victim in his first at-bat that game.

(Malik Vincent can be reached at

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