The Thursday Takeaway
Pirates starter James McDonald took home his third win of the season last night, but by the time he left the mound, he had been saddled with three runs in 5 2/3 innings—an outcome that belied his dominance of the Nationals in his team’s 5-3 win.

The 27-year-old righty cruised through his first five innings, pounding the zone and missing plenty of bats. He picked up two strikeouts in the first, fanned the side in the second, added two more apiece in the third and fourth, and reached double digits by whiffing Rick Ankiel to end the fifth. All the while, McDonald maintained a no-hitter, thanks in part to this effort from center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who also paced Pittsburgh’s offense with two home runs.

Once among the hardest-throwing starters in the majors, McDonald has traded some fastball velocity for a significant improvement in control and command of his off-speed pitches, which he mixed especially well last night. Counting his 11 strikeouts and one walk on Thursday, McDonald has amassed a 36-to-7 K/BB ratio over his last four starts, and he’s allowed only two home runs in 50 1/3 innings all season.

An 11th-round pick in 2002, McDonald was slow to develop but had intriguing upside, largely owing to his fastball-curveball tandem. He was shipped to the Pirates as part of a two-player package for reliever Octavio Dotel at the 2010 trade deadline—a deal that fits right in among general manager Ned Colletti’s list of head-scratchers—and now appears to be realizing his impressive potential.

Barring a rotation tweak by manager Clint Hurdle, McDonald’s next start will come on Tuesday night against the Mets. And if he’s somehow still sitting on your fantasy league’s free-agent wire, now is the time to act.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • For 28 of the 30 teams, this weekend marks the beginning of interleague play. The lone intra-league matchup pits the Cardinals against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, where Lance Lynn will square off with Ted Lilly tonight (10:10 p.m. ET), looking to pick up his league-leading seventh win of the season.
  • Cody Ross—the hero of the Giants’ 2010 NLCS victory over the Phillies— returns to Citizens Bank Park as a member of the Red Sox. With Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford on the disabled list, Ross has been a bright spot for Boston so far, hitting .262/.338/.500 in 36 games. Ross is just 9-for-35 lifetime versus Cole Hamels, who will toe the rubber for Philadelphia tonight, but four of those nine hits have cleared the fence (7:05 p.m. ET). Later in the series, watch for David Ortiz at first base and Adrian Gonzalez in right field if manager Bobby Valentine hopes to keep both of their bats in the lineup.
  • Bronson Arroyo has faced every team but the Red Sox since his major-league debut in 2000, and he has defeated all but two of the 29, with the Yankees and the Royals representing the lone exceptions. Tonight (7:05 p.m. ET), Arroyo will have a chance to take down the former as he makes his third career start in the Bronx, facing Andy Pettitte. Left-handed hitters have combined for a .361/.382/.481 triple slash against Arroyo to date, so expect Eric Chavez—who is 5-for-14 with a home run in their previous encounters—to be in Joe Girardi’s lineup. (In case you’re wondering, Girardi went 0-for-2 versus Arroyo as a player.)
  • A nine-run outburst yesterday afternoon notwithstanding, the Diamondbacks’ lineup could use a boost, and it should get precisely that this weekend with center fielder Chris Young’s return from the disabled list. Young was off to a torrid start, going 16-for-39 with four doubles and five dingers, before suffering a shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the past month. After completing a rehab assignment with High-A Visalia, Young should rejoin the Diamondbacks in time for tonight’s game in Kansas City (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • John Danks is not an ace, but he was a steady, 2.2-win pitcher for the White Sox last year—a sharp contrast from his utterly ineffective performance so far in 2012. Through eight starts and 47 1/3 innings, Danks is sporting a 6.46 ERA and has fanned only 26 batters while walking 22, including six walks and just one strikeout over his last two outings. The Cubs have typically been friendly to Danks—he’s logged a 2.88 ERA and 24-to-6 K/BB ratio over 25 innings in four career starts against them—so perhaps he can start to regain his rhythm on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET) at Wrigley Field.

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At the beginning of the season, who would have predicted that the Orioles/Nationals series would be a battle of 1st place teams?
The Nationals seemed poised to improve, but certainly no one saw the Orioles jumping out to this good a start. Curious to see if Jake Arrieta can turn things around tonight after a couple of rough starts.

One quick note: The Nats are actually half a game behind the Braves entering play today.