PITTSBURGH – Carlos Marmol felt the wave of relief and couldn’t hide his emotions. He pumped his fist and flexed his muscles in the middle of PNC Park.
Marmol watched the 4-6-3 double play unfold on Thursday afternoon and got mobbed by his teammates. The Cubs closer got the heart rate pumping again, but managed to escape this time with a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs insist all that matters is they got to line up for handshakes and fly to Atlanta with a 2-1 record. But as the Chicago and Japanese media crowded around Marmol’s locker and stuck cameras and microphones in his face, you wondered how long they’ll be able to stomach this with Kyuji Fujikawa waiting to take over the job.
“It’s tough, but I’m still fighting,” Marmol said. “I’m going to keep fighting every time I go out to the mound.”
Manager Dale Sveum and pitching coach Chris Bosio promised to get Marmol right back out there after pulling him from the ninth inning on Opening Day. That means cover-your-eyes moments for the Cubs fans groaning and cursing on Twitter as soon as they see the alert: Marmol’s warming up in the bullpen.
This was a relatively low-stress environment. The 12:36 p.m. (EST) first pitch, 45-degree temperature and two teams expected to finish at or near the bottom of the National League Central left entire sections of the waterfront ballpark empty.
Nate Schierholtz had just driven a 3-1 sinker from Jared Hughes over the center-field fence and into the bullpen for a two-run homer that gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning.
Marmol had some breathing room as he jogged in from the bullpen, punched his glove and circled the mound. To that point, the Pirates had only managed one hit off Travis Wood (six innings) and relievers Shawn Camp, James Russell and Fujikawa.
“I was leaving him in until he gave it up,” Sveum said. “I didn’t have quite the weapons I had the other day.”
Doubt started creeping in when Starling Marte led off with a line-drive single into left field. Marmol then walked Russell Martin. Andrew McCutchen lined an RBI single into left. By the time Gaby Sanchez singled past first baseman Anthony Rizzo, it was suddenly a one-run, here-we-go-again game.
“I’m not going to say that’s my best slider or my best fastball,” Marmol said. “But I made good pitches today when I needed it.”
Another big mood swing came when Marmol struck out Pedro Alvarez and induced that game-ending groundball from Neil Walker. That’s exactly what Bosio told Marmol to do when he visited the mound moments earlier.
“He wasn’t like throwing the ball all over the place,” Sveum said. “For the most part, we know things like that can get interesting with him, but he got out of it again.”
The Cubs watched their starters – Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Wood – give up two runs in 19 innings combined and still nearly got swept out of Pittsburgh. There will be little margin for error with this lineup.
How long can you keep going to Marmol and staying patient with that high-wire act?
“I went with it three months last year,” Sveum said with a laugh. “He got out of all of them. It wasn’t like he was pitch-efficient last year when he was getting out of those 20 saves in a row or whatever.”
The Cubs like to point out Marmol’s post-All-Star break ERA (1.52), how he converted 19 straight save chances during one stretch last season. Their fingers are crossed that the $9.8 million closer can get on another roll before the July 31 trade deadline.
This is a small sample size, but the overall trend line is still alarming: Marmol has faced 10 batters so far this season and given up three runs on four hits and two walks and one hit batter.
Marmol laughed when a reporter asked about his manager keeping the faith while the fans don’t want to see him anymore in the ninth inning.
“That’s a tough question,” Marmol said. “I’m going to continue to try and do my job. Right now, I’m focused on getting people out. I don’t focus on anything else.”
Sveum isn’t going to overreact either, even while knowing what’s at stake – get off to a good start or else face another summer selloff – and even with a decorated Japanese closer waiting to take the ball.
“I’m not doing anything,” Sveum said. “We’re 2-and-1 and everybody’s in the same role heading into Atlanta.”