The Cubs lost their 2014 debut this afternoon in Pittsburgh 1-0 after Pirate second baseman Neil Walker deposited a 3-2 cookie from Carlos Villanueva into the right field bleachers for a solo homer in the bottom of the 10th inning. The loss spoiled a nice outing from Jeff Samardzija, who turned in an efficient 89-pitch 7-inning performance without allowing a runner to reach third base. For Shark, this is step 1 in proving to Jed and Theo that he can be a core piece of the Cubs’ 2015 starting rotation (perhaps as a #2 to future ace Max Scherzer). Another sort of bright note was the 4-hit day turned in by Emilio Bonifacio from the leadoff spot. Bonifacio is no Tuffy Rhodes – but 4 hits from the leadoff spot on opening day ain’t bad, in theory. Yet Bonifacio’s big day was muted when he was picked off of 1B after collecting his fourth hit in the tenth inning. He would have been picked off twice if Pirates 1B Travis Ishikawa hadn’t dropped the ball for an error on a pick-off throw from Pirate’s starter Francisco Liriano in the 1st inning.
When you pinch hit Luis Valbuena for your opening day 5-hole hitter in the 9th inning of a scoreless tie, you are pretty much conceding as a manager that you have a sketchy lineup. It’s not that I blame new Cubs skipper Ricky Renteria for the move – Valbuena drew a pinch hit walk – but it does say something about the roster. A 3-4-5 of Castro, Rizzo, Olt is not going to punish too many teams this year. But tell us something we don’t know! Cubs 3B Mike Olt was himself punished a little bit by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck in his opening day debut. He struck out looking in his first AB on a ball that was clearly out of the zone, after taking strike 2 that was closer but also out the zone. With Hirschbeck behind the dish, the Tommy Glavine rules were in place for Francisco Liriano today. In his 3rd AB, Olt took a 2-0 pitch that was again outside of the zone and flied out later in the AB. Not a big fan of the rookie treatment, but there it is. Olt had a better day than the box score will indicate. Thanks, Hirschbeck.
As in 2013, the 2014 team has started off poorly hitting with runners in scoring position, going 0-11 today. The big offender today was Anthony Rizzo, who batted three times with RISP. The big flop was in the 7th inning when, after Junior Lake sacrificed Bonifacio to 3B following Emilio’s double, Castro grounded to Walker who started a 4-2-5-2-5-1 fielder’s choice put out. (Something like that anyway.) And then Rizzo popped out to end the theat. As in most situations, the sacrifice bunt here was a bad idea, but firmly rooted bad ideas tend to recede slowly in the game of baseball. Even Aaron Boone was calling for the sac from the ESPN booth.
We got a glimmer of what should prove to be one area of improvement in 2014: the bullpen. (The Villanueva cookie, notwithstanding.) Pedro Strop worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning, looking sharp. With the game still in a scoreless tie, Justin Grimm walked the first batter he faced in the ninth inning – but then showed a lot of poise in striking out National League MVP Andrew McCutcheon on a breaking ball. Renteria went to Jeff Russell next to face the lefty Pedro Alvarez. Russell K’d Alvarez on a slider in the dirt. Despite the flexibility afforded this year by having second lefty Wesley Wright in the bullpen, Renteria chose to stay with Russell against the right-handed hitting Russell Martin. It worked this time, as Martin lined a 2-0 smash into the glove of Junior Lake at the left field warning track to send the game into extras.
Of academic interest, Renteria made the first official appeal under MLB’s expanded replay system in the fifth inning, asking for another look at a double play after Samardzija was called out at first by umpire Bob Davidson. The call was confirmed in MLB’s New York replay room during a 2-minute delay. In the tenth, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle asked for a review after Davidson ruled Bonifacio safe on the pickoff attempt by winning pitcher Bryan Morris. The call was overturned after a 2:30 delay, sending Bonifacio and the potential go-ahead run back to the dugout.
All-in-all, we pretty much got what we can expect from the 2014 Chicago Cubs: occasionally brilliant starting pitching; a decent bullpen; and very little offense. The Cubs get tomorrow off before playing game 2 at Pittsburgh on Wednesday.