PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald's scariest moment came long before he took the PNC Park mound. The menacing Reds can throw a fright into any pitcher, but what had thrown McDonald into a panic was Rod Barajas walking out of the clubhouse with an ace bandage tightly wrapped around his waist.Seeing his catcher in apparent pain was not something McDonald wanted. So he sped after Barajas. A few seconds later, both returned laughing, Barajas peeling away the bandage. "Was just messing with J-Mac," the catcher said, grinning. No one else the rest of Monday messed with McDonald, who blanked the National League Central-leading Reds on five hits over eight innings to give the Pirates a 4-1 win. "A very strong outing for James. He finished strong, getting 12 straight going out the door," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who had given little thought to having McDonald take a shot at his first career complete game and a shutout. McDonald's 103 pitches were misleading. The heat (88 degrees at game time) and humidity were minor compounding factors compared to the two stressful jams he had to escape. "He found ways out of them, but it was way more than 103 for me, having to pitch through the third and the fifth," explained Hurdle, who had Tony Watson start the ninth, with Joel Hanrahan appearing for the final out and his 12th save after the Reds had pushed a run across. McDonald struck out five in his outing, two shy of setting a new club record of seven consecutive starts with seven-plus whiffs. McDonald also lifted the Bucs to the .500 mark -- the level they reached with a fourth consecutive win that secured a winning homestand (5-2, with two more games to go against Cincinnati). "We're heading in the right direction," said Hurdle. "It's a long haul, but I like the direction, the focus and preparation. We're going out and playing with confidence." No one is playing with a bigger reservoir of that than is McDonald, who lowered his ERA to 2.20 while becoming the Pirates' first four-game winner -- a modest status reflective of the low-scoring conditions in which Pittsburgh pitchers have had to work. Not McDonald, not on Monday -- when he had a 4-0 lead to take into the top of the fourth after the Pirates were done scoring for a third straight inning for only the third time in 48 games. "Having a lead is nice. But you've got to tell yourself that you can't ease up and have to stay on your toes," McDonald said. "Got to keep going after those guys the same as if it was a 0-0 game." Fittingly on Memorial Day, when called on for some offense, Pedro Alvarez responded on the double. Several of them, in fact. He doubled down the left-field line to drive in the first of two first-inning runs. He doubled down the right-field line in the third before scoring on Barajas' single to make it 4-0. "Pedro has missed some pitches he should've squared recently, and he knows it. But he's putting together some very professional at-bats. Our record is in a very good place when Pedro drives in a run," Hurdle said with satisfaction. To be precise, the Pirates are 13-3 in Alvarez's RBI games. Alvarez should've been given credit for completing a symmetrical three-double day, but his fifth-inning drive to straightaway center was ruled a Drew Stubbs catch, even though replays appeared to have shown the ball touch the wall's padding before settling into the glove's webbing. The Reds, who hit town, have been hitting everything else, too. Cincinnati vaulted atop the NL Central standings with eight wins in its last nine games fueled by the long ball: 20 homers in those games, accounting for 31 of the 47 runs the Reds scored in them. Conclusion: Taking the home run out of their playbook makes the Reds vulnerable. Pirates' premonition: We can do that. "If we pitch the way we're capable of pitching, we'll keep the ball in the park," Hurdle had promised. It was easier to make that pledge with McDonald about to pitch. The right-hander, who a year ago served up 24 home runs in 171 innings, has become the Majors' toughest righty to take deep. He has now allowed two homers in 65 1/3 innings. Numbers such as that are one measure of McDonald's surge into prominence. A more compelling example was offered by Monday's third inning. Ryan Hanigan opened it with a double and, despite Bronson Arroyo's best attempts to lay down a bunt, McDonald ended up walking his mound foe, turning over the Reds' lineup. This was precisely the kind of predicament that would've slowed down, and eventually devoured, the old McDonald. The McDonald 2.0 update? He pounced off the mound for Stubbs' bunt and spun for a sure peg to third to get the lead runner. Froze Wilson Valdez with a 1-and-2 slider. Got Joey Votto on a routine fly to right. Then slowly walked back into the shade of the dugout. "It was big," McDonald acknowledged, "but that's one of the things I'm focused on: If I get in a jam, be the same pitcher, with the same focus, go at 'em. I just got in that mode, 'This is it. I'm putting my foot down.'" And just to prove that was no accident, in the same trouble against the same part of the Cincinnati batting order, McDonald reprised the escape act in the fifth. "We had him in trouble a few times ... and he didn't have his best stuff today, but we didn't either," said Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker. "He threw a good game against us. We weren't swinging real good against him."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.