ST. LOUIS (AP) — Before James McDonald headed to the mound for the bottom of the first inning, A.J. Burnett offered his beleaguered teammate two words of advice.
"I was talking to myself: 'Why not?'" the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher said after halting a string of ineffective starts with six innings of two-hit ball in a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night. "Just go out and play instead of making it something much more difficult than what it is."
Andrew McCutchen singled and scored on a passed ball in a two-run fourth for the Pirates, who took the opener of a weekend series between NL Central playoff contenders. Pittsburgh scored its other run on a wild pitch that inning.
McDonald (11-5) was 0-2 in his previous four outings while allowing 20 earned runs over 21 1-3 innings. He coughed up a 7-1 lead in his last start when he allowed six runs in the fifth during a loss to the Padres.
"That was me. That's baseball," he said. "You see people go through ruts like that. What makes you a better player is getting through it. That's how I'll remember this time."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle pulled the right-hander after 87 pitches to make sure the outing ended on a positive note.
"That's what we need from him," Hurdle said. "Not always zero runs and two hits. We need that focus, we need that commitment."
The Pirates expect this one to be a confidence-builder, both for McDonald and their postseason chances.
"This was a huge step forward for us," Hurdle said. "We're going to need him to get something done this year, I think."
Jake Westbrook (12-9) allowed one earned run and six hits in 7 2-3 innings for the Cardinals, who managed only one run for the second straight game. One inning was the difference on Thursday night, too, when closer Jason Motte gave up consecutive homers with one out in the ninth of a 2-1 loss to Arizona.
"I felt like I controlled the damage with just two runs scored," Westbrook said. "I put myself in that situation. It's nobody's fault but my own. I just got outpitched."
The Cardinals lead the National League in hitting but have 10 hits in the last two games, including four infield hits Thursday.
"Bottom line is there are no excuses," leadoff man Jon Jay said after going 0 for 3 with a walk. "We'll turn the page. Tomorrow is a big game."
McDonald retired the first 10 in order with the help of a double-play ball. Allen Craig doubled with two outs in the fourth for the Cardinals' first hit, but was erased trying to advance on a pitch McDonald bounced in front of the plate.