Samardzija twirls opening gem as Cubs stifle Bucs
Righty whiffs nine over eight; Rizzo homers, Fujikawa picks up Marmol
PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Samardzija looked like an Opening Day veteran, not first-timer. Anthony Rizzo, who didn't hit a home run in any Cactus League games, launched the first pitch he saw in the regular season out of PNC Park for a two-run blast. And Carlos Marmol was pulled in the ninth and Japanese right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa got the save.
The end result: The Cubs held on for a 3-1 win Monday over the Pirates in the season opener and manager Dale Sveum did his best to downplay any closer controversy.
First, Samardzija. After the first three Pirates batters reached, the right-hander settled down and retired 23 of the next 25 batters he faced. He struck out nine over eight scoreless innings.
"That was probably as good a game as he's pitched starting his career," Sveum said.
"I'd say 'pitched' is a key word there," Samardzija said. "I thought it was the best pitched game. I didn't have the best stuff, but I worked both sides of the plate, up and down, and really attacked their hitters with the game plan me and [catcher Welington Castillo] had from the beginning. It was nice to have that confidence."
Confidence. That's a key word for Marmol, too. Marmol struck out the first batter he faced in the ninth. But then he hit Andrew McCutchen, who stole second and scored on Pedro Alvarez's single to center. After Marmol walked Gaby Sanchez, Sveum turned to James Russell, who induced Neil Walker to pop up to to right field. Fujikawa, making his Major League debut, came on to get Russell Martin to fly out to center to earn the save.
"That's part of the ninth inning," Sveum said. "Those last three outs are hard to get no matter who's on the mound. Marmol didn't really have it today, so I went to a couple other guys to get those last two outs."
Sveum isn't abandoning Marmol.
"He's still the closer," Sveum said. "I'm not making any changes or anything like that, he just didn't have it today."
It was the Cubs' first Opening Day win since 2009. As president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was walking out of the clubhouse and saw Fujikawa with reporters, he said, "Nice game, Fuji."
The Japanese right-hander, who was a closer for 12 seasons with Hanshin, is not trying to take Marmol's job.
"That's nothing I can control," he said through interpreter Ryo Shinkawa. "My job is to get the three outs I'm asked for -- three outs, four outs."
Sometimes, one out.
"Lucky man," Fujikawa said, in English.
Marmol, who threw 19 pitches, nine for strikes, got a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio after Alvarez's single. The closer said he was a little surprised to see Sveum after he walked Sanchez.
"That's why you need teammates, that's why you need a team, to pick me up," Marmol said. "That's what a team does."
Did he have problems with his command?
"A little bit," Marmol said. "I felt fine, though. My slider command was good. ... It's one bad day. It happened on the first day."
The first day was a good day for Rizzo, who was razzed by his teammates this spring for the lack of home runs.
"Guys were calling me 'Campana,'" he said, referring to former Cubs outfielder Tony Campana, known for his speed, not his power. "You don't try to hit home runs but you get guys chirping at you, and it's nice to get it out of the way and just win."
With one out in the Cubs' first, Starlin Castro singled and Rizzo sent A.J. Burnett's first pitch 438 feet to right-center, the ball landing behind the bleacher seats. Rizzo was one of six Cubs making their first Opening Day starts, and knows the importance of getting off to a good start.
"It's one-game playoffs every day for 162-plus [games], hopefully, and we just have to play hard," Rizzo said. "Everyone has to have each other's back. I think when everyone gets each other's back, everyone will get emotional and the emotion will carry us all year."
Samardzija was beginning the season where his ended last Sept. 8, when he was shut down after reaching his innings limit. This year, there are no limits on the right-hander. He's the first Cubs Opening Day pitcher to go at least eight innings and give up two hits or fewer since Lon Warneke threw a shutout on April 17, 1934.
"The last two times we've seen him, he's been a beast out there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Samardzija. "He was throwing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. ... Big leagues. Tough draw for Opening Day, and he made pitches."
Burnett (0-1) did, too, striking out 10, the most by a Pirates pitcher on Opening Day since John Candelaria fanned that many in 1983. With one out in the Cubs sixth, he hit Nate Schierholtz with a pitch, who scored on Castillo's double to right. Castillo was caught in a rundown, but Burnett then exited.
Rizzo was so excited about the win, he said he "blacked out" about the home run details.
"It's my first Opening Day, a lot of guys' first Opening Days," Rizzo said. "To get the win is good for our whole organization and for the season, to get off on the right note."