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Unable to back Burnett, Pirates drop opener to Cubs

Righty whiffs 10 in 5 2/3 innings, but counterpart Samardzija a 'beast'

PITTSBURGH -- Opening Day is a time of eternal hope. For the Pirates, the hope is still there -- unlike the '0' in their loss column.

The Cubs crossed that out on a brisk, bright Monday afternoon, frustrating the Bucs, 3-1, in front of a sellout crowd of 39,078 in PNC Park.

Chicago right-hander Jeff Samardzija continued his recent domination of the Pirates, limiting them to two hits over eight innings in which he struck out nine and walked one.

Samardzija -- 3-0 in his last three starts against the Pirates -- was described as "a beast" both by his mound victim, and by the victim's manager.

"The last two times we've seen him, he's been a beast," said Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle, referring to Samardzija's complete-game win over the Bucs last Sept. 8. On July 23, the righty threw eight innings of one-hit, no-run ball against Pittsburgh. "He can go to 95-97 [mph], then drop that breaking ball in there at 80. It's always a challenge, trying to cover close to 20 mph."

"He came out and was a beast. Threw the ball well," said Burnett, whose first career Opening Day start could not reverse his PNC Park fortunes.

The Bucs' lone run, in the ninth, came with Burnett long gone. So one zero that apparently is hard to get rid of is that in his run-support column, as the ace right-hander nearly absorbed his fourth consecutive home loss by shutout.

The last run the Bucs have scored in PNC Park with Burnett on the mound came in the fourth inning of his Aug. 27 start -- five starts and 36 innings ago.

Asked whether he could remember the last time his teammates had scored for him here, Burnett lowered his chin and his voice and conceded, "Yeah, I do. But it was just one of those days. Certainly not for lack of trying."

The only hits off Samardzija were Neil Walker's leadoff single in the second and Andrew McCutchen's double with two outs in the sixth.

The Pirates' lone run came in the ninth, when Pedro Alvarez singled home McCutchen, who was hit by a Carlos Marmol pitch and stole second. After Marmol walked Gaby Sanchez, Cubs manager Dale Sveum turned to James Russell, who induced Walker to line out to right field. Kyuji Fujikawa, making his Major League debut, came on to get Russell Martin to fly out to center to earn the save.

"We had an opportunity in the ninth," said Martin, who relished coming up as the potential winning run at the end of his first Pirates game. "I envisioned something super special happening there. It just didn't happen."

After Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer in the first, the day kept getting better for Burnett, who wound up allowing six hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innings, with one walk and 10 strikeouts.

The strikeouts tied the all-time Opening Day record for a Pittsburgh starter, set in 1965 by Bob Veale and matched in 1983 by another left-hander, John Candelaria.

"You could tell with all the strikeouts that Burnett had it working," Sveum said. "It was good to come away with three runs with Burnett throwing the ball the way he did."

This opener was a reminder of the last one, when the Phillies made a seventh-inning run off Erik Bedard stand up for a 1-0 victory.

To further the analogy, the Pirates' only threat against Roy Halladay that day came in the first inning, which Alex Presley and Jose Tabata led off singles, the only two hits the Bucs would get.

On Monday, the first two batters in the home half of the first again got on base, Starling Marte on a walk and Garrett Jones when his grounder to was muffed for an error by Brent Lillibridge -- subbing for injured Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.

The runners moved up on McCutchen's grounder -- but remained there as Alvarez and Sanchez both fanned.

The game was on the verge of getting away in the fourth, begun with a Nate Schierholtz walk and Welington Castillo double that put men on second and third with none out. Burnett fanned Luis Valbuena and did likewise to Lillibridge -- but only after Martin's block of a 59-foot curve kept Schierholtz on third.

Samardzija's weak grounder to third then ended the once-dire threat.

"I thought that'd be big," Burnett said. "If you get out of a jam like that, it gives your team a little fuel, fire. I wanted to keep putting up zeroes, give us a chance."

Chicago was finally able to extend its lead in the sixth, as Burnett was approaching 100 pitches. He hit Schierholtz with his 94th pitch, and No. 98 found the right-center gap off Castillo's bat for a 3-0 lead and Burnett's exit.

Rizzo, who last season delivered the blow that in many ways finished off the Pirates, delivered the one that started off this one on the wrong foot.

Then, it was a sixth-inning grand slam on Sept. 16 to cap off the Cubs' comeback from a 9-5 deficit and lead to a 13-9 defeat that took the fight out of the Bucs.

Now, it was a first-inning homer, following a single by Starlin Castro, to give the Cubs a 2-0 jump.

"It was a ball over the middle of the plate," Burnett said of the first-pitch delivery to Rizzo. "You've got to get that ball in. I was getting it in on lefties the rest of the game, and there were no good swings on it. You're supposed to hit that ball out. He's an aggressive swinger, and he got me."

About the only other thing that blew up in Burnett's face all game was the rosin bag, which simply came apart in a cloud of resin the first time Burnett pounded it before the start of the fifth. He thinks he might've been the victim of an April Fool's gag.

"If so," Burnett said, "it was a pretty good one. That's my day: One pitch, and the rosin bag."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, A.J. Burnett, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez