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03/26/09 8:33 PM ET

McDonald takes lead in fifth-starter race

Dodgers rookie continues to step up while competitors falter

TUCSON, Ariz. -- It might seem by default, but rookie James McDonald appeared to take the lead Thursday in the Dodgers' lackluster competition for the fifth-starter job. The 24-year-old right-hander made it through three scoreless innings against the Rockies in a blustery wind, burning through a 29-pitch first inning and lifted after making 59 pitches, shy of the 65-pitch target manager Joe Torre hoped for.

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McDonald walked two and hit a batter to load the bases in that first inning, but also struck out the side as the Rockies didn't put a pitch in play. He finished the outing with two hits allowed and three strikeouts. In his previous start, McDonald pitched three hitless innings against Cleveland.

"I thought he threw the ball better than last time," Torre said, proving that the experts see things that don't show up in the box score. "The ball came out real easy."

McDonald wasn't even an original candidate for the job when camp opened, as management brought in five others with more starting experience to fight for the role, with the intention of giving McDonald a bullpen job.

But one by one, Jason Schmidt, Shawn Estes, Claudio Vargas, Eric Stults and Eric Milton have been unable to win the job. Schmidt and Estes have been ruled out of the running, but Torre said no decision has been made on the remaining four and probably won't be until next weekend.

"Everybody has to be in [the running]," Torre said. "It's the only fair thing to do. We won't make a decision until we have to. Everybody's still in it. It's not fair to eliminate anyone."

And there's still the undeclared long-shot candidate, 21-year-old Josh Lindblom. Torre said McDonald will start again next week, as will Stults on Sunday. Lindblom, as he did Wednesday, will follow Stults. Lindblom pitched three innings Wednesday, and if he's extended to four next time out, it could be an indication of the club's plans for him.

But McDonald seems to be the new favorite, his poise in last year's postseason etched in management's memory. He acknowledged he was "a little sporadic" in the first inning Thursday, but wouldn't use the wind as an excuse. He again said his recent improvement is the result of no longer pressing mentally after words of encouragement from Minor League mentors Charlie Hough, Glen Dishman and Jim Slaton.

He also had an explanation for why he seemed impervious to the pressure of playoff baseball last October, but was rattled trying to win a job in Spring Training. Six scoreless innings in his two starts have trimmed his ERA from 7.71 to 4.70.

"At the end of the season, I felt I was in tip-top shape, but coming into the spring, I wasn't where I was then; my stuff was not there," McDonald said. "You're still preparing instead of having it all and having it come naturally, and I got frustrated when the results didn't come."

McDonald earned positive reviews from veteran catcher Brad Ausmus, who was behind the plate Thursday.

"The wind was wreaking havoc on his curveball today, and that's usually a strength for him," said Ausmus. "He seems like a battler. When the situation gets more treacherous, his concentration goes up. That's impressive. He doesn't seem to get rattled. A lot of times emotions are the biggest enemy of young pitchers, so that's a big plus for him."

Milton -- trying to win a job after a year and a half on the sidelines following elbow surgery -- also pitched Thursday. He took the worst of the atmospheric conditions, charged with six runs (some of them wind-blown) on seven hits (five for extra bases) in 2 2/3 innings, his ERA rising to a somewhat misleading 7.27.

"I can't control the wind," Milton said. "Those balls found the right spots and things didn't go my way. But my arm feels good. I haven't had any setbacks. I've worked hard to get to this point and it's a little frustrating, obviously. I don't think one inning shows how I feel or how I'm pitching. I can just feel it coming out of my hand a lot firmer."

In the intriguing battle for bench jobs, Torre upgraded Doug Mientkiewicz's late bid from a "long shot when he came on board" to "you can't say that now. He hasn't done a lot wrong."

The veteran Mientkiewicz had an RBI double, walk and scored twice Thursday. He, Blake DeWitt, Chin-lung Hu and Juan Castro seem to be fighting for the last two bench jobs if the Dodgers carry only four outfielders, as Torre has hinted is being considered.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.