For a brief moment, every headline in Chicago on Saturday morning was going to read: “Cubs have more closer problems.”
But Kyuji Fujikawa, who inherited the closer job from Carlos Marmol less than a week ago, went from showered with boos to showered with beer after the Cubs staged a bottom-of-the-ninth rally to walk off with a 4-3 victory over the Giants at Wrigley Field.
Fujikawa surrendered three runs in the top of the ninth, transforming a 2-0 Cubs lead into a 3-2 Giants advantage. But that was short-lived, as a pinch-hitting Dioner Navarro led off the bottom of the frame with a game-tying home run to right field on the second pitch thrown by Giants closer Sergio Romo.
After a pair of strikeouts, David DeJesus reached with a single and came around to score the game-winning run on Starlin Castro’s double off the center field wall.
“The last at-bat, I was just trying to get on,” DeJesus said. “That’s the right guy we want up in that situation, and he drove it. I thought it was going to be gone, and it hit off the wall and won the game.”
“I was pinch-hitting in that situation,” Navarro said of his big hit. “My mindset was just to get on base and try to make something happen. I was fortunate enough to get a fastball inside and hit it out of the ballpark.”
Moments before the walk-off elation, Fujikawa had turned in a performance all too similar to those of his predecessor. With the Cubs ahead 2-0, Marco Scutaro doubled with one out and advanced to third on a wild pitch. He came home on Pablo Sandoval’s single, and after a hit batsman and a fielder’s choice, Brandon Belt doubled down the right field line to bring in the game-tying and go-ahead runs.
“Just command again,” manager Dale Sveum said of Fujikawa’s struggles. “He’s not getting the swings and misses at the split. I thought he threw some good splits, and they were laying off them. But the command and the life of the fastball just wasn’t there again. He didn’t get strike one. He just can’t get strike one right now.”
But thanks to his own team’s heroics in the bottom of the inning, Fujikawa earned his first Major League win and the customary beer shower from teammates.
“I appreciate my teammates getting my back, and I need to go back out there tomorrow,” Fujikawa said through interpreter Ryo Shinkawa.
Fujikawa’s blown save erased a magnificent outing from Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva, who made it two quality outings to open his season. This time, the right-hander tossed 7 1/3 shutout innings against the defending champions, allowing just four baserunners on three singles and a walk. After allowing a lead-off single to open the game, Villanueva set down 12 Giants in a row.
But, for the second time this season, a great Villanueva outing ended in a no decision. Still, Villanueva was all smiles postgame, happy that the Cubs grabbed the emotional win.
“After they came back in the ninth, all we needed today was a win,” Villanueva said. “I’m happy with us getting the ‘W.’ Personal stats? Whatever. They’ll come. If I do my job then they’ll come eventually, but the atmosphere in our clubhouse right now, I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
Fujikawa was on the hook for another Cubs closer collapse, but that didn’t seem to bother Villanueva, even while the Giants were basking in the glory of their new-found ninth-inning lead.
“I told Ryo, the interpreter, ‘Tell him that I believe in him, we believe in him and that he’s going to be fine. He’s done it a million times before,’” Villanueva said. “He’s very apologetic, and he feels bad, we can tell. But we need him, and as long as we communicate that to him--at times things aren’t going as well, but we’re teammates and we’re a team. We love Fuji, and I know he’ll do well.”
For the Cubs, the win was all the sweeter in the end after the way Thursday’s series opener went. The Cubs blew a much bigger lead in that game, going from leading 5-0 to eventually losing 7-6, thanks to some poor play in the field.
“We feel like [Thursday] we kind of gave it to them,” DeJesus said. “So if we would’ve lost [Friday], it would’ve been a tough couple days for us. It’s great for us to come back because Villanueva pitched such a good game today, throwing balls over the plate, throwing strikes, keeping them off balance. It stinks that he didn’t get the win, but Fuji got his first one and we’re excited.”
The Cubs built their initial lead behind a pair of solo home runs from ninth-inning heroes DeJesus and Castro. Both tallied their first long ball of the season. Castro’s day was the most impressive, and a strong bounce back from his performance Thursday, which featured a costly error and a strike out with the tying run at second base in the ninth.
In the end, a day after being the goat, it was Castro who played savior.
“That’s the part that I love most about this game,” Castro said. “Every day’s a new day. If you play hard, you can be a hero.”
Vinnie Duber is a contributor to CSNChicago.com