James McDonald is evolving into a top-of-the-rotation starter in front of manager Clint Hurdle's eyes, to the point Hurdle calls it "fun" to watch McDonald pitch.
Watching his team at the plate doesn't give Hurdle quite the same feeling.
McDonald tossed seven sparkling innings against the New York Mets on Tuesday but the Pirates again couldn't muster much run support in a 3-2 loss. Despite failing to pick up the victory on a night he allowed just one run on four hits, striking out eight and walking two, McDonald remained upbeat.
"There were times last year where I was terrible three starts in a row and these guys had my back," McDonald said. "They're playing hard behind me."
They're just not hitting. Befuddled by R.A. Dickey's dancing knuckleball all night, the Pirates allowed the 37-year-old veteran to rack up a career-high 11 strikeouts.
Dickey (6-1) gave up one run on four hits to move into a tie with a host of others for the most wins in the majors. Frank Francisco pitched the ninth for his 11th save.
Josh Harrison had two hits for the Pirates, who couldn't take advantage of another strong start by McDonald.
Mike Baxter, batting leadoff for the first time in his career, doubled off Juan Cruz (1-1) with one out in the eighth then came home two batters later when Duda's liner glanced off the glove of first baseman Garrett Jones and rolled into right field.
New York added an insurance run on an error by Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez and the Mets hung on.
"We had three balls go off our gloves that inning and they scored two runs," Hurdle said with a shrug.
Dickey's darting 80 mph knuckleball isn't designed to rack up strikeouts, but then again the free-swinging Pirates have a way of making opposing hurlers look overpowering.
Pittsburgh began the night with the most strikeouts in baseball and had little trouble adding to the total. Though Hurdle warned his players to stay patient and only let it rip if the knuckleball stayed up, the Pirates continued to hack away.
"(The knuckler) was consistently good throughout the game, which was nice," Dickey said. "A lot of times it will leave and come back, but tonight I felt like I had a really good one and I had a couple different kinds of knuckleballs tonight, which is really, really fun."
Dickey, enjoying the best start of his career, retired 10 straight at one point and the only batter he struggled to put away the 5-foot-9 Harrison, a utility player who keeps finding his way into the lineup with his spirited play.
McDonald has matured into arguably the most consistent pitcher on one of baseball's most surprising staffs. The 27-year-old who once had major issues throwing deep into games because of his command has worked into the seventh inning in five of his last six starts while becoming a legitimate strikeout pitcher.
Mixing his fastball and curveball effectively, McDonald allowed one run on four hits in seven innings, walking two and striking out eight. McDonald threw 71 of his 104 pitches for strikes while lowering his ERA to 2.51.
"He took another step for us," Hurdle said of McDonald.
The Mets only broke through once, using two walks and an RBI-single by Mike Nickeas to take a 1-0 lead in the second. Nickeas was nailed at second base trying to stretch his hit into a double, cutting short the rally. New York wouldn't get a runner to third during McDonald's last five innings.
Dickey matched McDonald whiff for whiff except when Harrison was in the box. The right-fielder doubled in the first and tripled in the sixth, coming home on Andrew McCutchen's sacrifice fly to tie the game at 1.
Pittsburgh's bullpen, a major reason the offensively challenged Pirates have remained competitive, faltered for once. Cruz entered the game with a 0.56 ERA, fourth-best among National League relievers.
Baxter, however drilled a shot off McCutchen's glove in center field to get New York started in the eighth and the Mets were on their way to improving to 9-5 in one-run games.
NOTES: New York 3B David Wright went 0 for 4 as his average dropped to .403, still tops in baseball ... New York SS Ruben Tejada, on the disabled list since May 7 with a strained right calf, had four hits in an extended spring training game on Tuesday ... Pittsburgh P Jeff Karstens will make a second rehab start on Saturday. The right-hander has been on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation since April ... The series concludes on Wednesday when New York's Jonathon Niese (2-2, 4.85 ERA) faces Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton (2-4, 4.35) at 12:35.