Just 12 short months ago, the Cubs were unsure whether or not Jeff Samardzija would even be effective as a member of the starting rotation. Making the first Opening Day start of his career, the former Notre Dame standout dazzled, striking out nine over eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and walking one in what became a nailbiter 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates Monday afternoon.
In what has become a regular occurrence for Chicago in recent years, the ninth inning proved near deadly for Chicago once again, as Carlos Marmol failed to nail down his first save attempt of the season, lasting just a third of an inning, while walking one, hitting a batter and allowing an RBI single. Left-hander James Russell came on with runners at first and second with one out, with Gaby Sanchez at the plate for Pittsburgh.
Sanchez lined out to right on a 2-2 pitch from Russell, and right fielder Nate Schierholtz attempted to double off the runner at second, albeit unsuccessfully. Former Japanese standout Kyuji Fujikawa then made his Chicago Cubs debut in a tense situation. Fujikawa features a fastball, cutter and splitter, and quickly retured catcher Russell Martin on a flyout to center on two pitches, earning his first big-league save.
The right-hander continued his dominance over Pittsburgh he began a year ago, when he posted a 2-0 record with a 1.06 ERA in two starts, including a complete game shutout to conclude his campaign last September. Before he even set foot on the mound, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo gave him some cushion, driving an A.J. Burnett fastball deep into the seats in right field for a two-run home run.
Burnett (0-1) was the tough-luck loser in this one, tossing 5 2/3 innings in which he allowed three earned runs on six hits and one walk. He had Cubs hitters chasing pitches all afternoon, running a hard slider in on the hands of lefties, and relying on a running fastball to jam right-handers, en route to ten punch outs on the afternoon.
The Cubs added an insurance run in the top of the sixth when catcher Welington Castillo came through with an RBI double to right center, scoring Schierholtz to put the Cubs up, 3-0. Castillo finished the afternoon with a pair of doubles, as part of a 2-for-4 afternoon.
Chicago was notably aggressive on the bases, swiping a pair of bags as well as attempting hit-and-runs on several different occasions The Cubs went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, but survived thanks to limiting Pittsburgh to a 1-for-7 mark with runners in scoring position.
KING OF THE CRIB: Right-hander Jeff Samardzija started shakily in the first, but cruised through the rest of the game, striking out nine and allowing only two hits en route to his first win of the 2013 season. The ace of this Chicago staff continued his success in Pittsburgh, winning his third straight decision against the Pirates.
UP NEXT: The Cubs (1-0) and Pirates (0-1) continue their series on Wednesday at PNC Park, with a 6:05 PM start time. Right-hander Edwin Jackson will make his Cubs debut against the Pirates and southpaw Wandy Rodriguez. The game can be seen on Comcast Sports Net, and WGN radio will have the call over the airwaves.