Even while James McDonald was struggling with his control and serving up a bevy of homers last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates still felt he had the talent to one day be the team's ace.
He is not only throwing like the No. 1 starter in their rotation, but he looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball.Coming off a superb May, McDonald seeks to continue his stunning turnaround for the Pirates in Sunday's series finale with a banged-up Milwaukee Brewers team that could again be without Ryan Braun.Pittsburgh (26-26) is four games out of first place in the NL Central, and McDonald (4-2, 2.20 ERA) is a big reason the team is still hopeful of its first winning season since 1992. He has yielded three runs or fewer in each of his 10 starts, giving up one or zero in four of his five May outings.His ERA of 1.54 and WHIP of 0.89 last month each ranked second in the majors, and he struck out 39 in 35 innings."I'm just along for the ride and I'm enjoying it," manager Clint Hurdle said after the right-hander gave up five hits and a walk over eight shutout innings in Monday's 4-1 win over Cincinnati.Last season, McDonald's 4.11 walks per nine innings ranked worst in the majors of the 94 qualifying pitchers, while his 1.26 homers per nine innings was the ninth-worst average.The improvement in just one year has been astonishing. He has surrendered just two homers over 65 1/3 innings and walked two or fewer in each of his last six outings."(In the past) 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."I think my mental approach is different."The Pirates, who won Friday's opener at Miller Park 8-2 before losing the next day 5-1, sure hope things work out differently for McDonald this time against Milwaukee.In two career starts against the Brewers -- both losses in Milwaukee -- McDonald has allowed 11 runs over 10 1/3 innings. Pittsburgh has lost 37 of 41 in Wisconsin.Braun is 3 for 9 with a double against McDonald, but it seems the reigning NL MVP could get another day off after sitting out Saturday because of a right Achilles injury and a strained right hip sustained Friday.The Brewers (24-29), who've won five of six, may also be without third baseman Aramis Ramirez after he left in the seventh inning Saturday with a left quadriceps strain.Brooks Conrad helped carry Milwaukee's depleted offense, homering and driving in three runs. The home run ended an 0-for-27 slump to start the season for Conrad."To be a winning team guys off the bench have to step up," he said. "That's why it felt so good to finally come in and get the job done."Garrett Jones supplied all of Pittsburgh's offense with his sixth homer. He is 7 for 18 with four extra-base hits in his last five games.The Pirates, who had won six of seven before Saturday, hope to have better luck offensively Sunday against Michael Fiers (1-0, 1.29), who is coming off an encouraging first major league start.Recalled from Triple-A Nashville to start for the injured Marco Estrada, Fiers allowed a run and five hits while striking out three and walking none in seven innings of Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 26-year-old right-hander, who made two relief appearances last season, threw 64 of 89 pitches for strikes."I tried not to show too much emotion, but inside I was going pretty crazy," he told the Brewers' official website.