Cubs fall on walk-off HR in Renteria's debut
Skipper makes history by issuing first challenge; must wait on first win
PITTSBURGH -- New manager Rick Renteria's Cubs looked very much like the Cubs of last year.
As it often happened in 2013, a solid effort by a starting pitcher was wasted as the Cubs went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and lost, 1-0, to the Pirates on Opening Day in front of 39,833, the largest regular-season crowd in PNC Park history.
Neil Walker smacked a walk-off home run in the 10th inning off Carlos Villanueva for the win, spoiling Renteria's debut as a big league manager. It was the first Cubs extra-inning Opening Day game since March 31, 2008, against the Brewers.
"That's not the way you want to start your season," Villanueva said. "I made a couple good pitches ... then I hung a changeup. It was quick -- bad pitch and he took advantage of it, and that was the game."
Walker connected on a 3-2 pitch for his first career walk-off hit. Villanueva won the fifth spot in the rotation, and he will not start until Sunday. He was ready for duty.
"If I'm in the bullpen, I expect to pitch -- early, late, whenever," Villanueva said.
Renteria did make history, becoming the first manager to use Major League Baseball's expanded instant replay system. He challenged a call in the fifth when Jeff Samardzija was called out at first on a close play. After approximately 90 seconds, the call was confirmed. The Pirates had a call overturned in the 10th, when Emilio Bonifacio was initially called safe on a pick-off attempt.
This was Samardzija's second straight Opening Day start, and second in a row at PNC Park. One year ago, he gave up two hits over eight shutout innings in the Cubs' win. The right-hander was named the Opening Day starter after being a hot topic in trade rumors.
"When I think of Jeff Samardzija, I'm really happy he's our Opening Day starter and look forward to a performance like he did last year," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said before the game.
Samardzija is the first Cubs pitcher to record consecutive scoreless Opening Day starts of at least seven innings since Lon Warneke did so in 1933-34. What also was impressive was Samardzija's pitch efficiency, which is a goal he set this season. He threw 89 pitches over seven innings; one year ago, he threw 110 over eight innings.
"That's what we're looking for," Samardzija said. "Obviously, we're going to take a hit on [the number of] strikeouts, but that's not the most important thing. The most important thing is keeping your pitch count down and getting your offense back in the dugout. That's what we're going to go for this year, is attacking the zone and making smart pitches and go for the strikeout when we need it, and ultimately just go out there and pitch so when you need the extra 20 pitches, we'll be able to reach down and go get those."
Both Samardzija and Pirates starter Francisco Liriano were sharp. Samardzija scattered five hits over seven innings, while the Pittsburgh lefty struck out 10 over six innings, giving up four hits.
"We've seen this before," Walker said of Samardzija. "When he's down in the zone, he's tough to hit, and that was the case today. Fortunately enough, our bullpen did what it always does, put up zeros, and we were able to squeak out one run and win the game."
The Cubs had chances, but they went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position. That was a recurring theme last season when the team batted a National League-low .218 with RISP. Anthony Rizzo was 0-for-4 Monday, stranding four.
"It's game one of 162," Rizzo said. "You learn from it and move on. Off-day [Tuesday], come back on Wednesday and get going."
What does Rizzo need to do with runners on base?
"You slow the game down in those situations," he said. "I know what he's going to attack me with, and it's about seeing it and putting the barrel on it. Today, I didn't come through, but that's the position I want to be in."
Renteria, 52, is exactly where he wants to be. He has come full circle from when he made his big league debut at Three Rivers Stadium with the Pirates on Sept. 14, 1986, against the Cubs. Now, he was making his managerial debut with the Cubs against the Pirates. He was all smiles before the game.
"Ricky is who he is," Epstein said. "He's very positive, very energetic. He believes in this team, believes in his players, and I think we'll see that translate onto the field."
The Cubs will have a tough time in the NL Central if they can't deliver in the clutch.
"We're a very confident group," Rizzo said. "It's a good thing. There's a lot of good energy in the dugout and the clubhouse before the game. It's a tough loss, obviously, but it's one game. No one's going home yet. It's nice to have the energy in here. Runs will be scored."