ALTOONA — James McDonald had a hard time with a minor league lineup in his last spring training tuneup.
The lanky right-hander was tagged for four runs and three hits in the first inning, and the Pittsburgh Pirates lost to their Double-A Altoona affiliate 8-6 in their final exhibition game Saturday.
Starling Marte hit a grand slam in the second that tied the score at 4, and Russell Martin also had two hits for Pittsburgh.
McDonald left after two innings, but all the damage was done in the first when the Curve sent nine batters to the plate. He gave up three walks, a wild pitch and a two-run double just inside the right-field line by Carlos Paulino.
It wasn’t the sort of outing the Pirates’ No. 3 starter was looking for heading into the season after struggling in the second half of 2012.
Altoona scored four runs in the fifth off minor league reliever Nathan Baker, who was on loan to the Pirates.
Marte, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter entering his first full season in the majors, finished the exhibition season having reached base safely in nine of 10 games. But his homer Saturday wasn’t entirely good news for Pittsburgh — the shot to left came off Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, who pitched an inning for Altoona to get some work.
The Pirates’ first visit since 2000 to their loyal Double-A affiliate packed Peoples Natural Gas Field in the blue-collar, west-central Pennsylvania city of Altoona, including fans laid out on blankets on the grassy hill behind the wall in left on a cool but bright afternoon. The attendance of 10,016 was the largest in Curve history.
McDonald’s first inning was as topsy-turvy as the wooden roller-coaster tracks that towered just beyond the right-field wall at Lakemont Park, the neighboring amusement park.
“I’m happy it happened here. It was a long inning. I just wanted to say, ‘It’s over, we’ve got to move on from here,”’ McDonald said.
McDonald was 0-1 with a 4.19 ERA in five spring starts entering Saturday. The Curve also stole two bases in the first inning off him and Martin, who signed as free agent in the offseason.
Already trailing 2-0, McDonald walked Alex Dickerson on a full count to put runners on first and second for Paulino. He sent a 1-1 pitch just inside the right-field line to score two runs for a 4-0 lead.
Fans in Altoona seemed tortured — many cheered for the clutch hit, while a few groaned — perhaps upset with seeing McDonald struggle. McDonald settled down in the second, allowing just a walk, before departing for the afternoon.
The Pirates’ third starter after A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, McDonald began the 2012 season strong before tailing off in the second half with a 3-5 record and 7.52 ERA.
McDonald said he’s confident that he can be consistent all year this season. And while he said it may not be evident from Saturday’s outing, this was one of the better springs of his pro career.
“I think I need to keep that chip on my shoulder, to never feel relaxed and never feel at ease on the mound,” McDonald said. “Just keep my foot on the gas really and keep going at guys.”
Pirates closer Jason Grilli, getting the start for Altoona to also get in some work, allowed a leadoff single to Marte before striking out two in a harmless first.
Baker, who pitches for the Curve, was wild in his brief stint for the parent Pirates. The lefty gave up four runs on four walks, one hit and two wild pitches to Altoona in the four-run fifth.
Andrew Lambo went 2 for 4 with two runs and an RBI single in the first for the Curve. He also made a lunging catch on a hard line drive to left to rob Pirates star Andrew McCutchen of an extra-base hit.
Notes: The Pirates and Curve announced in a pregame ceremony that the player development contract with Altoona has been extended through the 2018 season. Altoona has been the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate since 1998. ... Burnett is scheduled to make his first career opening day start when the Pirates host the Cubs on Monday. It will be Chicago’s first opening day visit to Pittsburgh since April 7, 1978. ... Altoona center fielder and leadoff hitter Mel Rojas Jr. is the son of former major league reliever Mel Rojas. ... The Curve announced Saturday that it will host the 2014 Eastern League All-Star game.