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Walk-off HR from Walker hands Bucs opener

After Liriano, bullpen blank Cubs, second baseman delivers big blast

PITTSBURGH -- After all the flags and the '13 awards were in place on Monday at PNC Park, it was time for what Clint Hurdle had been anticipating for months: A new season, a new chance, another ballgame.

"The beauty of all the pageantry," the Pirates manager had said, "is all that will stop, and we'll get to play a game -- and that game will start a journey."

The journey began afoot … as in a walk-off.

Neil Walker led off the bottom of the 10th with a home run off Carlos Villanueva to give the Bucs a 1-0 victory over the Cubs in front of a rocking sold-out house of 39,833 at PNC Park.

A day dedicated to honoring the past of Pittsburgh baseball and celebrating its present had to end on The Pittsburgh Kid's first career walk-off hit, did it not?

A first, for a guy associated with clutch hitting?

"I'm glad he knocked it off the list," Hurdle said. "A good day to do that."

"I did have one, in Triple-A," Walker said sheepishly. "This one feels pretty special. A special day for the team, for the organization. I certainly have a little better understanding of the tradition of the organization than most guys. To get to where we are now is pretty amazing. Just an amazing day."

Walker's shot into the right-field seats beyond the Clemente Wall concluded the Bucs' first Opening Day walk-off win since April 12, 1965, when Bob Bailey's 10th-inning homer gave them a 1-0 win over San Francisco in Forbes Field.

Flashback for older Pirates fans? In that same '65 opener, Bob Veale had set a club Opening Day record with 10 strikeouts -- a record matched Monday by Francisco Liriano, who needed only six innings for the feat.

"There's 161 games left, but that's a good way to start," Walker said after punctuating the Bucs' first Opening Day win since the outset of the Hurdle Era, on April 1, 2011.

"I'm sure Mr. Walker had a pretty good time, too," said Hurdle, invoking Neil's dad, Tom, the former Pirates pitcher. "I'm sure Tom is finding a place to bounce around a little bit."

The game also featured the first instant replay challenge in MLB history, as Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged a call that Jeff Samardzija was out in the fifth inning, and it was confirmed. Hurdle challenged a call in the 10th after Emilio Bonifacio was called safe when Bryan Morris attempted to pick him off, and that call was overturned.

"It's funny," Morris said after his day, which also included the winning decision. "My first Major League pickoff, and it came with a review. I'll take it."

After 8 1/2 innings of brilliant pitching on both sides, the game for the Cubs almost became a Grimm tale. Right-hander Justin Grimm came on to open the bottom of the ninth by walking Travis Snider, an invitation to mayhem with the heart of the Pittsburgh lineup following.

However, Grimm struck out Andrew McCutchen before making way for left-hander James Russell, who had an appointment with Pedro Alvarez. Russell fanned the left-handed hitter, then got Russell Martin to line out into the left-field corner and extend Opening Day into extras.

The starting pitching was as brilliant as the weather, with Liriano matching the Bucs' traditional Opening Day nemesis, Samardzija, for six shutout innings.

The Pirates had seen this Samardzija before, even in a season opener: He had blanked them on two hits for eight innings a year ago, setting up a 3-1 Chicago victory.

"When he's down in the zone, he's tough to hit. And that was the case today," said Walker, who was hitless in three at-bats against Samardzija.

But the Bucs had also seen this Liriano in all of his Comeback Player of the Year 2013 season. Connecting the dots separated by six months, Liriano was brilliant for his six innings, tying the Opening Day strikeout record also matched in 1983 by John Candelaria and last year by A.J. Burnett.

"It's a good feeling," Liriano said of that accomplishment, "but the most important thing is it came in a game we won. Everything was working [for me], with good location, mixing pitches.

"I got a couple of swings and misses," Liriano added. "I didn't try to do too much, just hit my spots and go from there."

It wasn't quite as simple as he made it sound -- or as his final pitching line made it look.

"He battled," said Hurdle, mindful of Liriano having started off only 10 of his 24 batters with first-pitch strikes. "He made his best pitches in the deepest counts, especially his last two innings. The fastball command was less than 50-50 for him, which complicated things a bit, but he has other weapons to get outs."

"You come in expecting him to be typical Liriano, and that's what he was," said Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo. "He's one of the best in the game. You tip your hat to him for throwing a great game."

Liriano and Samardzija thus swapped hat-tips in their no-decision draw. Liriano allowed four hits in his six innings, the Cubs right-hander five in his seven.

Then they handed things off to their respective bullpens, and the relievers kept posting zeros. For the Pirates, Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli and Morris. For the Cubs, Pedro Strop, Grimm and Russell.

Morris was the last man in (the Bucs' bullpen), his spot not confirmed by Hurdle until the penultimate day of the preseason. Last man in, first man to win.

"Frankie deserved it. He pitched his butt off. I did not expect to get a win," said Morris. "I'm happy to have been the guy in the game when we scored."

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, Neil Walker, Francisco Liriano