PITTSBURGH – Edwin Jackson struck out the side in the first inning, and there are nights where he looks completely dominant, like the no-hitter he threw for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010.
Jackson has also been inconsistent enough that he’s now pitching for his eighth team in his six-degrees-of-separation career, which should have wiped out any nerves for his first start in a Cubs uniform. This was an in-between performance for a team in transition.
There wasn’t much post-Opening Day buzz at PNC Park on a chilling 35-degree Wednesday night. The announced crowd of 27,667 looked nothing like that. And Wandy Rodriguez outperformed Jackson, who ran up his pitch count to 92 and lasted five innings in a 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“You want to come out and try to get the season jumpstarted in a positive direction,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t a bad game. It wasn’t the best game. It was a game where you try to keep the team close. Clearly, everyone wants to stay in the game longer. But it’s a long season.
“Wandy went out and pitched a good game. Sometimes, you just have to tip your hat.”
The Cubs made a $52 million investment in Jackson, believing that he was young enough (age 29) and durable enough – 30-plus starts in each of the last six seasons – to still be performing at a high level when the team’s supposed to be a true contender.
Realistically that timeframe is the back half of Jackson’s four-year deal, assuming the Cubs finally get the green light for their Wrigley Field renovation plans and cash in with a new television deal after the 2014 season.
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Jackson – who has a 70-72 career record – could be an X-factor that speeds up those plans. As manager Dale Sveum said: “(Now) it’s time to take it to another level with that kind of stuff.”
Jackson ran into trouble in the fourth inning, when Andrew McCutchen slammed an RBI double off the left-field wall. Another run scored when All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro tried to make a backhand play and a hard-hit ball skipped past him for an error.
“When the infield’s in and the ball’s hit to your right and they’re going on contact, it’s kind of a do-or-die,” Sveum said. “You can’t really do much to set yourself or anything. You got to somehow backhand that and get rid of it with McCutchen running. There’s not a whole lot you’re going to do with that.”
[Watch: Sveum on Jackson's first Cubs start]
The Cubs had built this season around The Big Three: Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Jackson. Garza – who strained a lat muscle more than six weeks ago – is expected to rejoin the team this weekend and throw off a mound in Atlanta. If Garza doesn’t return before May, the Cubs need Jackson to step up if they’re going to get off to the fast start they’re talking about.
You see where the Cubs are at as an organization when a post-Tommy John surgery Rule 5 pick who has appeared in 13 games across the past three seasons makes his big-league debut. Hector Rondon actually made it through a scoreless sixth inning, working around two walks (one intentional) with two strikeouts.
There was a scary moment in the seventh inning, when Anthony Rizzo dropped to the dirt after getting drilled by a Rodriguez pitch. Rizzo’s helmet flew off his head, but he appeared to get hit on the right shoulder and stayed in the game, surviving what could have been a nightmare for one of the new faces of the franchise.
“I didn’t feel it in my shoulder,” Rizzo said. “It just kind of scared the heck out of me.”
Moments later, Rodriguez hit Welington Castillo’s left leg to load the bases. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Brent Lillibridge got caught looking at a 76 mph curveball and struck out. Left-handed reliever Tony Watson then got Alberto Gonzalez to fly out to center to end the threat. Through two games, the Cubs (1-1) are 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
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The Cubs are still waiting for the huge wave of talent to crash onto Clark and Addison. Jackson saw the payoff with the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. He rode the momentum with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. He became a one-year mercenary for the 98-win Washington Nationals in 2012.
In the meantime, there are going to be nights like this. But the Cubs liked how Jackson understands the building process, and checked in with enough former teammates and coaches to know it wasn’t his fault he moved around so much.
“It’s big for us,” Rizzo said of the Jackson addition. “Obviously, we didn’t give him run support, and that’s going to change. But just in the dugout (and) the clubhouse, he’s one of the guys on this team that you can go to and talk to and he’s very positive. That’s what this team needs.”