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Wandy promising in return, but Bucs fall

Lefty gives up three runs on five hits, strikes out five in six innings

PITTSBURGH -- Through the first half of the Pirates' season-opening homestand, those forecasting the weather have been about as accurate as those forecasting doom for the team's signature asset: pitching.

No rainout. No regression.

No sweep of the Cubs, either. But that was due far more to Chicago right-hander Jason Hammel's virtues than Pittsburgh lefty Wandy Rodriguez's vices.

Hammel muffled the Bucs on two hits for 6 2/3 innings Thursday afternoon at PNC Park, as the Cubs left town with a 3-2 victory.

Both Buccos runs were driven in by Tony Sanchez, who got his first start behind the plate about 11 hours after his game-winning single in the 16th inning early Thursday morning.

Even with a pair of extra-inning wins, the Pirates did not have much of an offensive series. But hey, at least they out-hit Emilio Bonifacio. Barely. They collected 20 hits to the irrepressible center fielder's 11.

"We pitch it and catch it pretty good," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, asserting his team hadn't changed its stripes, "and got to find a way to score one more run than the other team. We gotta keep working, connect some dots on offense better."

Pittsburgh's pitching staff -- starters and relievers -- held up its end, giving Chicago a total of six runs in the three-game series that spanned 35 innings.

Rodriguez suffered only by comparison. He allowed three runs in his six innings -- after Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton had allowed none in their six-frame turns.

In an absolute and figurative sense, though, this was a triumphant outing by the Pirates left-hander rebounding from two-thirds of a season lost to a forearm issue.

"I feel great," Rodriguez said, meaning emotionally as well as physically. "When I came back in Spring Training, I think about my arm a lot when I pitched. Here it's different ... emotional, and you know what? I passed everything good. This was big for me."

In his first start since June 5, Rodriguez allowed five hits and walked one while striking out five. His left arm held up well for 93 pitches, until he departed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth.

That arm could've held up for more. Rodriguez lobbied to to bat in the sixth, especially since he'd already gotten a hit his first time up.

"And I wasn't tired at all," he said.

Rodriguez was particularly sharp after he'd already fallen behind. He retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced after a single by Starlin Castro with none out in the third. The efficient finish was significant, affording a look at the left-hander once he settled in and dealt with his adrenaline.

"The last three innings," Hurdle said enthusiastically, "it was downhill, the changeup came into play, the curve was in the bottom of the zone. It was a tale of two pitchers; early on, he was up. He finished up very well. A very good outing. A big confidence- and momentum-builder for him."

A late Pirates rally in the wake of Hammel's departure was nearly to the benefit of Edinson Volquez, who made his Pittsburgh debut in an unexpected relief appearance, only the sixth of his 10-year career.

Scheduled to make his first start on Sunday against St. Louis, Volquez's usual side session morphed into a game appearance to help out a bullpen spent in Wednesday-Thursday's 16-inning game. Volquez responded to the surprise outing, blanking the Cubs on one hit for two innings that included two strikeouts.

"Probably less pitches than in a side, with more adrenaline," said Hurdle, thus characterizing Volquez's exercise as "a very aggressive bullpen."

When it was time to excuse Hammel after his 98 pitches of excellence ended with Neil Walker's two-out walk in the seventh, Cubs manager Rick Renteria called on lefty James Russell, and Hurdle called on Gaby Sanchez to hit for Travis Ishikawa. Gaby Sanchez's double into the left-field corner set up Tony Sanchez's two-run single.

Bonifacio, enjoying the most exceptional series imaginable, led off the first with his 10th hit, stole second and scored on Anthony Rizzo's shift-busting two-out single to left.

Mike Olt doubled the score to 2-0 with a leadoff homer in the second, and the Bonifacio Bonanza put one more plank on the Cubs' picket fence in the third: He doubled, went to third on Castro's single and scored on a double-play grounder by Justin Ruggiano.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, a couple of them seemed to illustrate what is meant by the cliche of "trying too hard."

In the eighth, with Jose Tabata aboard after a leadoff single, Starling Marte struck out by bunting a two-strike pitch foul. In the ninth, after Walker led off with a single, Gaby Sanchez popped up a bunt on an 0-1 pitch.

Neither player at the time had the bunt sign, but did it on his own.

"Marte was confident he could pull it off," Hurdle said. "When he came back, we had a chat. I told him, 'I'm confident you can drive a ball in the gap with two strikes.' Gaby ... we gave it one shot [on the first pitch to him]. He didn't get it down, so we let him swing away, and he felt compelled to try again."

The manager shrugged lightly.

"That played into [the loss], but wasn't all of it. All in all, we won a series and we'll move on."

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, Gaby Sanchez, Tony Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez