Cubs 3, Pirates 1

Jeff Samardzija began the season as the Chicago Cubs’ No. 1

starter practically by default thanks to injuries to veterans Matt

Garza and Scott Baker.

Don’t expect the quickly improving Samardzija to give up the

spot anytime soon.

The lanky right-hander allowed just two hits and struck out nine

over eight nearly flawless innings as the Cubs held off the

Pittsburgh Pirates 3-1 on Monday for their first opening day

victory in four years.

”He stuck to his game plan,” Chicago manager Dale Sveum said.

”That was probably as good of a game that he’s pitched in his

starting career.”

Samardzija’s only real issue came in the first, when a walk and

an error put two runners on with nobody out. A fielder’s choice and

two strikeouts later Samardzija was out of the jam. At one point he

retired 14 straight batters, almost all of them on strikeouts or

routine groundballs.

”When they’re making plays behind you it gives you the

confidence to really kind of make stuff up out there, keep the ball

down in the zone and you know they’re going to make some plays for

me like they did all day for me,” Samardzija said.

And the Pirates were only too happy to oblige Samardzija as he

worked both sides of the plate and kept the Pirates off-balance

with a two-seam fastball clocked in the mid-90s and a changeup that

didn’t break 80.

Pittsburgh only managed two balls out of the infield while

Samardzija was on the hill as he improved to 4-0 in his short

career against the Pirates.

”The last two times we’ve seen him, he’s been a beast out

there,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. ”He had command of

everything out of his hand.”

Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer in the first and Wellington

Castillo added an RBI double for the Cubs. Kyuji Fujikawa got the

final out to earn a save in his major league debut after closer

Carlos Marmol struggled.

A.J. Burnett, making the first opening day start of his lengthy

career, gave up three runs on six hits in 5 2-3 innings, striking

out 10. Pittsburgh however began a season of high expectations with

a thud.

Burnett said it was an honor to get the call in the opener, but

the 15-year veteran showed some nerves early. Castro singled with

one out and Rizzo followed with a towering two-run shot to center

field that landed on the concourse behind the seats for one of the

longest homers in the park’s 13-year history.

The ball left the park so fast even center fielder Andrew

McCutchen – a Gold Glove winner last year – trotted only couple of

steps before stopping.

Rizzo hit just .229 in spring training with just three extra

base hits, but his blast gave the rebuilding Cubs an early shot of

adrenaline.

”I don’t really remember the pitch or where I hit it or

whatever,” Rizzo said. ”It was just kind of blacked out there for

a second but it was nice to get the win and get on a good

note.”

Chicago threatened to expand the lead in the fourth, putting

runners in scoring position with no outs. Two strikeouts and a

harmless chopper to third ended the threat, but the Pirates could

muster little fight against Samardzija.

It continued a troubling trend at home for the Pirates when

Burnett takes the mound. Pittsburgh failed to score a single run in

Burnett’s final three starts at PNC Park in 2012, part of a

miserable collapse that sent the ballclub to its 20th straight

losing season.

Burnett couldn’t even catch a break while attempting to keep his

pitching hand dry. The rosin bag literally exploded while he was

tapping it against his hip during the top of the fifth, showering

the back of the pitcher’s mound and Burnett’s leg with dust.

”The pitch to Rizzo and the rosin bag, that was my day,”

Burnett said.

Pittsburgh’s offense was just as faulty against Samardzija.

Still, the Cubs nearly gave it away in the ninth when Marmol

came in to wrap things up. It didn’t happen. He hit McCutchen with

one out and McCutchen promptly stole second then scored on Pedro

Alvarez’s single up the middle. Gaby Sanchez followed with a walk,

ending Marmol’s afternoon.

He couldn’t blame Sveum.

”If you’re struggling to get people out, that’s what you have

to do,” Marmol said.

James Russell entered and managed to get Neil Walker to line out

to right before Fujikawa, who had 219 saves in the Japanese League

before arriving in Chicago in the offseason, forced Russell Martin

to pop to center to end it.

”I was thinking about making something special happen,” said

Martin, who was making his Pittsburgh debut after coming over in

the offseason from the New York Yankees. ”I just didn’t get it

done.”

Sveum insisted Marmol’s job is not up for grabs, at least at the

moment.

”Not making any changes or anything like that,” Sveum said.

”He just didn’t have it today.”

NOTES: Burnett’s 10 strikeouts tied a club record for strikeouts

on opening day. It was accomplished twice before, the last time by

John Candelaria on April 5, 1983 against the St. Louis Cardinals

… The series continues on Wednesday when Wandy Rodriguez (12-13,

3.76 ERA in 2012) faces Chicago’s Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03) …

There were snow flurries during batting practice but things

”warmed up” to 41 degrees under sunny skies by first pitch.