PITTSBURGH – Everything will be magnified in April.
The Cubs won’t have six months to find themselves, because the front office won’t care about the optics if another summer selloff leads to another 101-loss season. Opening Day is supposed to be about renewal and hope, but for this team there’s urgency.
That made the end so much more interesting on Monday at PNC Park. After Jeff Samardzija shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates across eight scoreless innings, manager Dale Sveum used three different pitchers to get the final three outs in the ninth and secure a 3-1 victory.
[BOX SCORE: Cubs defeat Pirates 3-1]
Everyone could see the closer controversy coming – just probably not in the immediate aftermath of Game 1.
Carlos Marmol hit Andrew McCutchen with a pitch and the Cubs already had James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa warming up in the bullpen when Pedro Alvarez knocked an RBI single into center field. Marmol walked the next batter and was done.
[PHOTOS: Cubs, White Sox 2013 Opening Day collage]
“He’s still the closer,” Sveum said. “I’m not making any changes or anything like that. He just didn’t have it today.”
With two runners on, Russell got Neil Walker to fly out to right field. Fujikawa needed only two pitches to induce a flyball from Russell Martin and pumped his fist after notching his first save in the big leagues.
Fujikawa saved more than 200 games in Japan across his 12-year career with the Hanshin Tigers, one of the country’s most historic and popular teams. He signed a two-year, $9.5 million deal that contains an option for 2015 that could make him a building block.
“I’m not putting too much emphasis into it,” Fujikawa said through an interpreter. “I’ve been a relief pitcher a long time. It could be with any pitcher in the game: Everybody has to be ready in the bullpen in any situation. That doesn’t specifically have to be Marmol.”
While Fujikawa spoke with reporters outside the clubhouse, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer burst through the doors. Epstein tapped the closer-in-waiting: “That a boy, Fuji!”
As much as the Cubs talk up Marmol’s second half last season (1.52 ERA), they know he’s a short-term asset that struggles to throw strikes, command his slider and trust his fastball.
If this team makes it interesting and flirts with the second wild card leading up to the July 31 deadline, Epstein said the Cubs would take a “realistic assessment” of how strong the other contenders are, how good this team really is and injury/health concerns.
“A good start can create momentum in and of itself that maybe transcends where it puts you in the standings,” Epstein said. “There’s a confidence that builds. Players start to get a sense of destiny and those close games can really start to go your way when you believe.
“Conversely, a bad start can put you in a position where those things are harder to come by. We’re facing a tough schedule early, which means our schedule is easier later. And we’re banged up right now. So if we can get off to a good start, we’ll have some reinforcements with some guys coming off the DL.”
Even given that importance, Samardzija didn’t want to hear about the letdown this might have been if the ninth inning went the other way.
“Well, it didn’t,” Samardzija said. “We won. Nothing happened in the ninth.”
Snow flurries in the morning gave way to a sunshine and blue skies in the afternoon and Samardzija felt like he was back pitching for Valparaiso High School against Michigan City in the 41-degree weather.
Samardzija had ended his breakthrough season here last year with a complete-game performance. He kept rolling by limiting the Pirates to two hits and one walk while striking out nine.
At this time last year, Samardzija was a nothing-to-lose rotation experiment and Anthony Rizzo was stuck at Triple-A Iowa as the first baseman of the future.
Rizzo drilled the first pitch he saw from A.J Burnett. McCutchen, the All-Star/Gold Glove outfielder, didn’t bother chasing it. The ball traveled an estimated 438 feet, clearing the center-field seats and disappearing beyond the red-white-and-blue bunting for a no-doubt, two-run homer in the first inning.
Whether it was Starlin Castro making plays deep in the hole at shortstop and collecting two hits, or catcher Welington Castillo (two doubles, one RBI) looking confident at the plate, the Cubs got contributions across the board from players they think could make leaps in 2013.
“Momentum in baseball is important,” Samardzija said. “This team is young. If we can get going in the right direction and get a little confidence and pitch the way we can pitch and field the way we can field, anything’s possible. It’s got to come from this clubhouse. It’s not going to come from anywhere else.”
Marmol said he hasn’t lost confidence, though he admitted the quick hook surprised him.
“That’s why you have teammates,” Marmol said. “They picked me up, like I can pick them up.”
Marmol promised he’ll be ready Wednesday night, which could make for another interesting decision in the season that could be more like a three-month sprint than a 162-game marathon.
“I’m not concerned about anything right now,” Sveum said. “We got a win and we did it a little unconventional. But the bottom line is he’s still the closer and we won a ballgame.”