Opening Day rerun: Cubs struggle to come through in clutch

Opening Day rerun: Cubs struggle to come through in clutch
March 31, 2014, 8:45 pm
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PITTSBURGH — A day that began with new Cubs manager Rick Renteria talking about winning the World Series ended with that same-as-it-ever-was feeling.

After Monday’s 1-0 walk-off loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, all that Opening Day optimism will be replaced by the reality of the 162-game marathon and a six-week/two-month sprint to try to convince the front office to not blow up the team.

The spotlight will be on Anthony Rizzo, because he has that seven-year, $41 million contract and a such a bond with the front office. Rizzo tried to keep it in perspective, knowing that the Cubs shouldn’t be covered like an NFL team. But the first 10 innings of 2014 looked way too familiar, even if Francisco Liriano (10 strikeouts) is one of the toughest lefties in the game.

“It’s Game 1 of 162,” Rizzo said, “so you learn from it and you move on.”

It became harder to sell the hope-and-change message you heard for six weeks in Arizona. Jeff Samardzija dominated for seven innings at PNC Park, but that only reinforced his value to a playoff contender and the idea he could be a difference-maker in a pennant race.

Emilio Bonifacio got four hits, but no one drove him in, and the new leadoff guy was picked off in the 10th inning, with some help from Major League Baseball’s new instant-replay system.

[MORE: Jeff Samardzija brings his A-game on Opening Day]

Fifth starter Carlos Villanueva wound up facing one batter in the 10th inning, and Neil Walker drove a ball into the right-field seats. Walker flipped his bat and spiked his helmet as he approached the mosh pit at home plate.

“If I’m in the bullpen, I expect to pitch — early, late, whenever,” Villanueva said. “I was ready, and I felt fine. I just threw a high changeup, and he took me out. You tip your hat. What else can I say?”

This is a team that lost 33 one-run games last season and batted .218 with runners in scoring position, part of a lost year that got manager Dale Sveum fired and forced the Cubs to shake up their coaching staff and hitting program.

The Cubs went 0-for-11 with men in scoring position and left eight on base. Rizzo became the headliner, striking out three times and popping out in the eighth inning, moments after Bonifacio got caught in a rundown between third base and home plate.

“We just got to capitalize on those opportunities and go from there,” Rizzo said. “But once one person gets it going, the entire team does.”

Rizzo is supposed to be that guy, even at the age of 24 and especially after a 23-homer, 80-RBI season in which he hit .191 with runners in scoring position.

“Just slow the game down in those situations,” Rizzo said. “I really know what (Liriano’s) going to attack me with, and it’s just about seeing it and putting the barrel on it. Today, I didn’t come through, but that’s the position that I want to be in the whole time.”