Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald shook his head and looked toward the ground when asked why he struggled in the first inning of Pittsburgh's 8-6 exhibition loss to the Altoona Curve Saturday at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
"Some days it just isn't your day. I'm happy it happened here," said McDonald after giving up four earned runs and allowing the Curve to bat around in the first inning. "It was a long inning. It's the kind of inning that when it's over, you just have to say 'it's over.'"
The outing was almost fitting, considering the day meant much more to the Curve than McDonald and the Pirates.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Starling Marte of the Pirates is greeted at home plate by Gaby Sanchez, Russell Martin, Garrett Jones and Neil Walker after hitting a grand slam.
Altoona drew a record-setting 10,116 fans which included more than 100 people sitting on blankets over the outfield fence. The Curve improved to 2-0 all-time against the Pirates. The first game was an 8-5 Altoona triumph on May 15, 2000.
"I had never been here, so I was pretty surprised," McDonald said. "This is a nice AA stadium. I have played in a lot of AA stadiums, and this is probably one of the nicer stadiums I have been to.
"They have a great set of fans. They filled the stadium today, and I was really surprised. This would probably be a really fun ballpark to play in for a team."
If the Curve's players perform like they did Saturday, the fun may have just started.
"We couldn't have picked a better day than this," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "It was a great day. The fans were excited, and I think we played pretty good."
Mel Rojas Jr. and Andrew Lambo singled and scored in the first inning off McDonald, and Carlos Paulino drove in a pair of runs with a double.
McDonald walked three players in the first and four in his two innings of work. He also threw three pitches to the backstop.
"We continue to stress with [McDonald] that he needs to go out and make pitches," Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's got a good fastball and three other pitches he can use. He's got to work ahead, and that wasn't in play today. Today he probably got a wakeup call before the season goes on what he's got to do to be successful."
Despite his rough outing, McDonald was not the losing pitcher thanks to former Eastern League batting champion Starling Marte.
The Pirates opening day left fielder singled in his first at bat off Pirates closer Jason Grilli and then tied the game at four with a grand slam off Tony Watson in the second inning.
"I wasn't expecting to hit it that well," Marte said through Pedro Alvarez's translation. "It just happened that way, but it's all in good fun."
Rojas Jr., Lambo and Justin Howard finished the game with two hits each as the Curve pulled away with a four-run fifth inning off Nathan Baker, who will begin the season in Altoona.
Marte, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker, Russell Martin and Clint Barmes were all pulled after five innings.
"This isn't too far away from home for me," Walker said. "Anytime I come to Penn State to watch a football game or something like that, I try to stop in Altoona and give a little salute.
"It was great. I remember playing here in big games in front of big crowds. I expected it to be the same today, especially with the weather the way it was. I'm a western Pennsylvania guy, and these are my kind of people."
The Curve will open the season in Erie on Thursday and will play their home opener Monday, April 11.
"The bar is up there," Garcia said. "We expect nothing but the best effort every day. They know we have a good, talented team. There's a lot of tools in here, and if we play our best, we're going to be fine."