The Cal League has some parks with short field dimensions, dry desert conditions and height above sea level, making them about as friendly to pitchers as Shiite neighborhoods are to Sunnis in Bagdad.
But McDonald persevered, with the help of pitching coach Charley Hough, and lowered his ERA to a respectable 3.95 halfway through the season. He only had a 6-7 won-loss mark but fanned 104 batters in just 82 innings (11.4 per nine innings) while walking only 21.
Inland Empire manager Dave Collins said, "He was our most consistent pitcher. No doubt about that. His record wasn't that good because we didn't score a lot of runs for him but I also think in a lot of cases the other guy he was pitching against just brought his 'A' game because he knew he had to."
Then he was promoted to AA Jacksonville where in a much more compatible atmosphere for pitchers, he soared. The 6-5, 195-pound righthander posted a 7-2 mark with the Suns, recording a 1.71 ERA and holding batters to a .218 mark. In all, he finished with a combined 13-9, 3.07 with 168 strikeouts (and only 37 walks) in 134 innings.
Quite a year and more than deserving of LADugout, Dodgers Dugout and the Los Angeles Dodgers Pitcher of the Year Award.
At 6-5, he throws consistently in the 90s, hitting 95, with the potential for more velocity considering his frame. He has a good four-pitch mix with a pair breaking balls and a superb changeup. His delivery, due to his size and arm action, gives him good deception.
His necessary detour into the outfield may have slowed his development somewhat but it also gives him a "fresher" arm. He has a tendency to rush his delivery in pressure situations and pitches up in the zone, both of which can be corrected with more experience.
He was more of a first baseman than he was a pitcher when he was selected in the 11th round out of Long Beach Poly High in 2002. But he wasn't deemed quite ready for pro ball so went to junior college for a year where his pitching improved so much that when he signed the next year as a draft-and-follow they wanted him utilizing that arm on the mound.
He started with the Gulf Coast Dodgers but suffered a bad case of tendinitis his second year that would prevent his pitching. The normal course would have been to slot him in the rehab program but some had other ideas. There were those who were still intrigued by his bat and that group included James himself.
The thinking was, a trip to the outfield could keep him busy. He could work with trainers and play in games and left field wouldn't put any particular strain on that arm. After all, how many serious throws does a left fielder have to make? Far fewer than a throwing program as part of a full rehab stint would require.
So, in 2004, James became an outfielder but a .224 (28-for-125) average showed that he wasn't going to be Babe Ruth and earn his livelihood there. He was back out there again in 2005 but the base hits still wouldn't fall (.229, 19-for-83).
Near the end of the season, his arm had completely healed, he told pitching coach Bob Welch he was ready to go back to pitching. He got into four games as the season wound down, working six innings, allowing four hits, striking out nine and limiting opposing batters to a .174 average.
In 2006, he was on the mound full-time for the Columbus Catfish. He led the starting staff with a 3.97 earned run average, 143 innings pitched and 147 strikeouts. He was 5-10 but won his final two games, one of them a shutout, and allowed a .229 average.
From that average start, who could have imagined the spectacular 2007 season that was coming up?
In high school, James McDonald enjoyed both pitching and playing the outfield. It wasn't until he couldn't pitch that he realized how much he missed it.
"When I was in the outfield I felt like was just out there running around," he told Bill Shelley. "I am a lot more competitive when I'm pitching. It is more up to me to get the other guys out."
That McDonald has excelled should be no surprise. He attended Long Beach Poly, which boasts one of the most storied high school athletic programs in the state. He played basketball, baseball and dabbled in football. "They had so many good guys, I didn't last long," McDonald laughed. "They didn't need me."
Ironically, football is the sport most rooted in the family.
McDonald's father, also named James, played tight end at USC and went to the NFL, playing for the Rams (1983-1987) where he was a teammate of Eric Dickerson. His uncle, Ben McDonald, played in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors.
But baseball also runs in the family. He has three cousins currently playing professionally. Darnell played for the Minnesota Twins' Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings. Another cousin, Darin, played for the Phillies' Short-A team and a third, Donzell, played with the Yucatan entry in the Mexican League.
Charlie Hough enjoyed having McDonald as a student and likes his potential. "At 25, he could be a big league pitcher. If everything goes right for him he is 300 to 400 innings away," Hough said. "The biggest thing for him right now is maturing physically to be able to pitch a full season. He has the right makeup and mentality."
Charlie may have missed McDonald's ETA by a couple years. He'll open the 2008 season with the Las Vegas 51s and if anyone falters at the major league level, he will be ready.
James Zell McDonald br tr 6-5 195 Born- October 19, 1984 Obtained- Selected in the 11th round 2002 year team w-l era gm gs in h bb so 2003 GCL 2-4 3.33 12 9 48.2 39 15 47 outfield ave obp gm ab r h 2b 3b hr bi sb 2004 GCL .224 .291 46 125 15 28 2 1 0 10 3 2005 Ogden .229 .312 28 83 12 19 3 1 0 8 3 year team w-l era gm gs in h bb so 2005 Ogden 0-0 1.50 4 0 6.0 4 2 9 2006 Colm 5-10 3.98 30 22 142.1 119 65 146 2007 InEm 6-7 3.95 16 15 82.0 79 21 104 Jack 7-2 1.71 10 10 52.2 42 16 64