CHICAGO -- Jason Kipnis figured his first home run with the Cubs would come in front of a packed house at Wrigley Field with his family and friends in attendance. The veteran second baseman is trying his best not to dwell on all the ways this year has been different.
In a 6-3 victory over the Pirates on Friday night, Kipnis launched a baseball into the empty bleacher seats in right field in the fourth inning, helping lead the lineup in support of a stellar start by Yu Darvish. The win pushed the National League Central-leading Cubs to a 5-2 ledger a week into the season.
"I take it for what it is, and I enjoy it for what it is," Kipnis said. "So I had a good time. I'll remember that always. And I got the ball, too."
As Kipnis spoke to Chicago reporters over a Zoom call, he held up a plastic case with the home run ball inside.
"That's coming with me," he added.
Here are three takeaways from Friday's win:
1. Darvish dominates
The goal for Darvish this year was to pick up where he left off last season. That became a challenge for the Cubs starter, considering that an offseason was followed by a three-month shutdown that interrupted Spring Training.
Against Pittsburgh, Darvish turned in an outing that resembled his dominance in the second half last summer.
"Today, I felt the same as the second half," Darvish said. "Still, I need to work on my mechanics and my normal cutter and command. But, I feel like it's really close, or almost the same."
Darvish lasted six shutout innings against the Pirates, who swung and missed 18 times, struck out seven times, managed two singles and walked just once. The righty said he featured his knuckle curve more often in early counts, and leaned more on his normal cutter than the harder version.
Darvish also reached 98 mph, including on consecutive strikeouts to Josh Bell and Colin Moran in the fourth.
"His stuff was definitely plus stuff tonight," Bell said. "We were trying to prepare for 98 today. [He] definitely mixed it up, threw that curveball really well in certain counts, kept us off-balance, was able to finish with the fastballs late."
2. Hoerner-Kipnis tandem keeps rolling
Late in Summer Camp, when Kipnis earned a spot on the Opening Day roster, he heaped praise on his rookie counterpart, Nico Hoerner. Kipnis also wanted to make it clear that their collective goal was to change the narrative around second base.
"People are looking at second base as kind of a weakness on this team," Kipnis said. "And it doesn't have to be that way. I know both of us are more than capable of stepping in and making it a strong suit."
It has been viewed as a potential trouble spot partly because Chicago's second basemen combined for a 81 wRC+ (19 percent below MLB average offensively) last year. That said, four players from that group (Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Tony Kemp and Robel García) are no longer in the organization.
In Friday's victory, Kipnis collected two hits, including the homer off Trevor Williams, and is now batting .455 (11 at-bats) on the campaign. Hoerner, while young in years and experience, impressed in September last season and has built on that with a strong start (.389 average through five games) to this year, too.
Kipnis walked leading off the eighth and was replaced by pinch-runner Hoerner. Hoerner scored on a two-run double by Anthony Rizzo.
"Albeit it is a small sample size, I think we're certainly off to a good start," Kipnis said. "We're doing exactly what we wanted. I think we each offer different things, but what we both offer is a hard work ethic and a good approach to each game."
3. Kimbrel's shaky ninth
A two-run push in the ninth by the Cubs’ lineup gave Craig Kimbrel a 6-1 lead to use to his advantage. In need of work, and coming off a rough season debut on Monday, the closer entered in the ninth and promptly allowed back-to-back homers to Bell and Colin Moran.
"He's still trying to find that breaking ball, it looks like a little bit," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He's still working through some stuff. He's definitely not where he wants to be yet. But it was nice to give him a little bit of cushion there and have him work through some stuff."
All five of the balls the Pirates put in play against Kimbrel topped 100 mph in terms of exit velocity. Fortunately for the closer, the final three in that sequence went for outs. That included a 104.9 mph lineout to deep center for Gregory Polanco and a 104.7 mph groundout by Bryan Reynolds.
Kimbrel sat around 96-97 mph with his fastball, electing to throw it 10 times within 12 pitches. With a five-run lead, the righty had more margin for error to keep trying to find his feel and command.
"He's just got to get that breaking ball out front a little bit," Ross said. "It looks like he's a little rotational in that. But, yeah, he's working through some stuff. But he's got to get the work."