PITTSBURGH – A.J. Burnett was idly patting the rosin bag against his right hip when he suddenly found himself in the middle of a dust cloud. The bag had somehow exploded in his hand, covering the Pittsburgh Pirates ace and leaving him shaking his head.
It’s the first time Burnett can ever remember it happening in his lengthy career. Unfortunately, the numbers he saw on the scoreboard were all too familiar.
Pittsburgh’s offense struggled against Chicago’s Jeff Samardzija and the first opening day start in Burnett’s 15 seasons in the majors ended with a 3-1 loss Monday. Burnett struck out 10 in 5 2/3 innings but also gave up a long two-run shot to Anthony Rizzo in the first inning that gave the rebuilding Cubs a needed adrenaline shot.
“The pitch to Rizzo and the rosin bag, that was my day,” Burnett said.
The Pirates continued a troubling trend that began during their late collapse last fall, when they failed to score in any of Burnett’s final three starts at PNC Park. It was more of the same on the first day of the 2013 season. Pittsburgh managed just two hits off Samardzija then saw a ninth-inning rally fall short when Russell Martin popped out with two runners on against Chicago reliever Kyuji Fujikawa.
“I was thinking about making something special happen,” said Martin, who was making his Pittsburgh debut after coming over in the offseason from the New York Yankees. “I just didn’t get it done.”
Burnett called it an honor to get the call in the opener, but the 15-year veteran showed some nerves early. Castro singled with one out and Rizzo followed with a towering two-run shot to center field that landed on the concourse behind the seats for one of the longest homers in the park’s 13-year history. The ball left the park so fast even center fielder Andrew McCutchen – a Gold Glove winner last year – trotted only couple of steps before stopping.
Rizzo hit just .229 in spring training with just three extra base hits, but his blast gave the rebuilding Cubs an early shot of adrenaline.
Chicago threatened to expand the lead in the fourth, putting runners in scoring position with no outs. Two strikeouts and a harmless chopper to third ended the threat, but the Pirates could muster little fight against Samardzija.
The converted reliever – beginning his second season as a full-time starter – only ran into trouble in the first, when a walk and an error put two runners on with nobody out. A fielder’s choice and two strikeouts later Samardzija was out of the jam. At one point he retired 14 straight batters, almost all of them on strikeouts or routine groundballs.
“When they’re making plays behind you it gives you the confidence to really kind of make stuff up out there, keep the ball down in the zone and you know they’re going to make some plays for me like they did all day for me,” Samardzija said.
And the Pirates were only too happy to oblige Samardzija as he worked both sides of the plate and kept the Pirates off-balance with a two-seam fastball clocked in the mid-90s and a changeup that didn’t break 80.
Pittsburgh only managed two balls out of the infield while Samardzija was on the hill as he improved to 4-0 in his short career against the Pirates.
“The last two times we’ve seen him, he’s been a beast out there,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “He had command of everything out of his hand.”
Pittsburgh grounded out 12 times and appeared on the way to getting shutout before Samardzija gave way to closer Carlos Marmol in the ninth, who almost gave it away.
Marmol hit McCutchen with one out. McCutchen stole second then scored on Pedro Alvarez’s single up the middle. Gaby Sanchez followed with a walk, ending Marmol’s afternoon.
James Russell entered and managed to get Neil Walker to line out to right before Fujikawa, who had more than 200 saves for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers before arriving in Chicago in the offseason, prevented Russell from coming through in his first game in black and gold.
Notes: Burnett’s 10 strikeouts tied a club record for strikeouts on opening day. It was accomplished twice before, the last time by John Candelaria on April 5, 1983 against the St. Louis Cardinals … The series continues on Wednesday when Wandy Rodriguez (12-13, 3.76 ERA in 2012) faces Chicago’s Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03) … There were snow flurries during batting practice but things “warmed up” to 41 degrees under sunny skies by first pitch.