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02/24/11 5:02 PM EST

Security gives McDonald chance to improve

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Then-Dodgers manager Joe Torre saw it last Spring Training, and James McDonald felt it. The young right-hander was pitching with a lot of pressure, and as that pressure mounted, his once-strong chance to break camp in Los Angeles' rotation dissipated.

"He sort of lost his way a little bit," Torre said at the time.

By midseason, the Dodgers were looking for relief help, and the Pirates had their eye on McDonald's talented arm. To Pittsburgh went McDonald and outfielder Andrew Lambo, and to Los Angeles went Octavio Dotel, and just like that, McDonald had a renewed shot to crack a rotation.

He took full advantage. He put up a 3.52 ERA over 11 starts and 64 innings, and struck out 61 -- nearly a strikeout per inning.

"It gives you confidence, but you still got to remember that I got a long way to go, a lot of things that I can do to get better," McDonald said.

Still, that finish has given McDonald an opportunity he never had before. The 26-year-old has been in the Majors for parts of three seasons, and in his 2008 debut season with the Dodgers, he threw 5 1/3 shutout innings in the National League Championship Series. Never, though, has McDonald been in a big league rotation from the get-go.

In 2011, there's no competition to be won. The do-or-be-cut pressure of last year is gone. He's a Major League starter, and he's happy about that.

"You can do things you need to do to get work in, and do things you need to do to get better to get ready for the season, rather than trying to come here and compete right away with things you don't have right now," McDonald said. "Being judged on outings that you might not be fully prepared for. ... This is a little different; to go out there and get my work in rather than go out there and compete and beat myself up."

When he talks about things he doesn't have, McDonald's referring to his control. He wasn't stellar in his last bullpen session on Tuesday, but he'll have another crack on Friday in a simulated game.

"He was rushing it a little bit, and we talked about it," Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. "He was pulling his head out, trying to overthrow stuff, which is normal [at this time of year]. He felt really strong, which is good. But he's got to make sure that he channels that energy."

McDonald is faced with a timing and rhythm issue, a classic problem for late February. He said his body, at times, "just feels out of whack." It's not a matter of being out-of-shape, though: McDonald had a positive experience with the Arizona-based Athletes' Performance Institute this winter.

Off the mound, McDonald appears completely comfortable. He's still close with some of his teammates from the Dodgers, and traveled to Clayton Kershaw's wedding this offseason. But he seems to have had no problem making friends among his new teammates, and his charisma is easy to detect. During a friendly bunting competition on Thursday, McDonald was laughing and joking throughout.

"I feel like this is like a family," McDonald said. "Everybody's close. I can talk to [anyone]. We're all like family."

Family, friends and himself -- that's where McDonald points when asked about his motivation this season. It could be easy to look toward his old club, to being traded less than a year ago. But he said he only feels thankful for the opportunity he had in Los Angeles, even if it never quite worked out.

"It's not like I want to prove them wrong," McDonald said. "Don't be satisfied with what I did last year [in Pittsburgh], and try to keep it going this year so I can help the team win a lot of ballgames."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.