PITTSBURGH - James McDonald gave a definitive answer about his confidence level.
Unfortunately, his teammates did the same about the current state of the Pittsburgh Pirates offense.
McDonald sparkled over seven efficient innings, giving up one run on two hits Thursday against the Chicago Cubs. It wasn't enough, however, to keep him from taking the loss as a late Pirates rally fell frustratingly short in a 3-2 defeat.
"At the end of the day, you just bite your tongue and go 'Man, it was that close,'" McDonald said. "We had them in the ninth and they barely got off."
Nate Schierholtz hit a two-run homer in the ninth off Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes to push Chicago's lead to 3-0. Closer Carlos Marmol entered, hoping to atone for a shaky performance on opening day.
Tonight: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers, 10:10 p.m.
Pitching matchup: Pirates LHP Jonathan Sanchez (0-0) vs. Dodgers RHP Zack Greinke (0-0)
Instead, he nearly handed the Pirates a stirring victory.
Starling Marte singled and Russell Martin walked to start the inning. Andrew McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez followed with consecutive run-scoring singles. Chicago manager Dale Sveum stuck with Marmol and he responded by whiffing Alvarez on three pitches then getting Walker to ground sharply to second base, allowing the Cubs to turn the double play.
"It's frustrating," said McCutchen, who represented the tying run and ended up 90 feet from home plate.
Yet McCutchen was also encouraged after watching McDonald show flashes of the pitcher who nearly made the All-Star last season before stumbling through a miserable second half. McDonald struck out four and walked just two, throwing 61 of his 97 pitches for strikes.
"He went out and he pitched a gem," McCutchen said. "You hate for guys to go out like that, go seven strong innings and get the loss but hopefully he can continue to do that and the bats will come around."
They certainly didn't come around against Chicago starter Travis Wood. The left-hander allowed one hit over six innings as the Cubs won a season-opening series for the first time in four years.
Wood struck out four and walked two. He also scored the game's first run, racing home on Starlin Castro's single in the third inning. Schierholtz took a sinker from Hughes and knocked it over the wall in center to give the Cubs some breathing room.
Chicago needed it after another high-wire act from Marmol. The closer picked up his first save of the season, but only after the Pirates put the tying run on third with no outs.
Marmol struggled in Chicago's 3-1 win on Monday, getting pulled after retiring just one of the three batters he faced. Chicago manager Dale Sveum insisted he was sticking with the volatile Marmol for now.
Might be time to reconsider.
There are no such issues for the Pirates after McDonald's welcome return to form. The 28-year-old went 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA after the All-Star break as the efficiency that led to his breakout first half vanished.
There were no such problems on a chilly 45-degree afternoon. His only hiccup came in the third. Wood singled with one out, moved to second on a groundball then scored on Castro's single to center field. The hit marked the first by the Cubs with a runner in scoring position this season, ending an 0-for-13 start.
After Marmol survived a hectic ninth, Wood improved to 4-1 in his career at PNC Park.
"I had good fastball command, I was able to locate it both sides and keep them off-balance," Wood said. "It's great to start off the season up here and get off to a good start."
The Cubs didn't run into trouble until after Wood gave way to Shawn Camp in the seventh. McCutchen reached on an error then showcased his newfound aggressiveness on the base paths.
Despite being one of the fastest players in baseball, McCutchen is a so-so base stealer. He swiped just 20 bags in 32 attempts in 2012 but made the running game a point of emphasis during the offseason.
He's certainly off to a fast start. Shortly after reaching he took off for second to collect his third stolen base in three games. Two batters later - after Sanchez and Alvarez failed to move him over - he bolted for third.
"I'm just trying to not think about things and go," McCutchen said. "I'm just keeping it simple."
Reliever James Russell, however, struck out Walker looking and the Pirates wasted a golden opportunity in the ninth as the Cubs improved to 2-1 for the first time since taking two of three from Houston to open the 2009 season.
Game notes: Pirates RHP Charlie Morton threw 28 pitches during a simulated spring training game at the team's complex in Bradenton, Fla., on Wednesday without issue. Morton is coming off Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is out until at least late May ... Sveum says he's in no hurry to see the National League adopt the designated hitter. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein said recently he could see the NL adopting it at some point ... The Cubs play in Atlanta on Friday. Scott Feldman will start for Chicago against Mike Minor ... The Pirates begin a six-game road trip in Los Angeles on Friday. Jonathan Sanchez will face Zack Greinke.