PITTSBURGH – Wandy Rodriguez’s fastball had abandoned him just in time to potentially ruin an otherwise fabulous night.
There were no such problems with his curveball.
Rodriguez struck out Brent Lillibridge on a knee-locking full-count bender with the bases loaded in the seventh, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ revamped bullpen closed out a 3-0 win over the Chicago Cubs Wednesday.
The veteran left-hander allowed just two hits over 6 2-3 innings, walking one and striking out six, none bigger than the 76 mph curve he threw to Lillibridge to end a 10-pitch battle with one down.
“He’s a pro,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s a pro’s pitch. No kid is going to throw that pitch.”
Tony Watson came in for Rodriguez and recovered from a 3-0 hole to retire pinch hitter Alberto Gonzalez. Watson then worked the eighth and Jason Grilli pitched a perfect ninth for his first save since being promoted to closer in the offseason.
Andrew McCutchen smacked an RBI double for the Pirates. Starling Marte and Gaby Sanchez also drove in a run, more than enough for Rodriguez on a frigid night.
Not that Rodriguez paid any attention. He wore shirt sleeves on a night temperatures dropped to the low-30s shortly after the first pitch. He appeared to warm up as the game wore on. All six of his strikeouts came over his final three innings.
“It was cold but then the game started I didn’t care about that,” Rodriguez said through a translator. “I wore the shirt sleeves because it let my arm feel loose.”
Edwin Jackson gave up two runs in five innings but lost to the Pirates for the first time in seven career starts. The Cubs produced just two singles and only put a runner on third once.
“We haven’t gotten a hit yet with men in scoring position in two games, so we’ve got to get better at that,” Chicago manager Dale Sveum said.
The 34-year-old Rodriguez helped the Dominican Republic to the World Baseball Classic title last month, going 1-0 with a 0.96 ERA in two starts. He carried the momentum forward in his first April start for someone other than the Astros.
Expertly mixing his breaking ball with a pinpoint fastball, Rodriguez kept the Cubs off balance all night.
“He had his stuff today,” Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He was working both sides of the plate to most of the guys. He didn’t give in there with the bases loaded. We fought there in the seventh and just didn’t come up with it.”
And unlike the opener – when the Pirates couldn’t take advantage of a steady performance by A.J. Burnett – the Pirates gave Rodriguez some help.
Pittsburgh took its first lead of the season when Garrett Jones led off the fourth with a single and McCutchen followed with a double to the corner in left. McCutchen came home when Gaby Sanchez’s sharp grounder rolled under the glove of shortstop Starlin Castro.
Rodriguez cruised until the seventh, when his command temporarily abandoned him. He drilled Rizzo in the shoulder, gave up a single to Alfonso Soriano and pelted Welington Castillo in the knee to load the bases with one out.
Lillibridge stepped in and nearly gave the Cubs the lead. Twice Lillibridge drilled a Rodriguez fastball down the left-field line. One landed inches to the left of the chalk. The other sailed just wide of the foul pole. Rodriguez took advantage of the reprieve by dropping in the curveball, a pitch that was so unexpected Lillibridge’s bat never left his shoulder.
“That’s closer-esque,” said Grilli, who was watching from the bullpen. “Every starter has to have that moment, that big moment in the game where you’re going to throw a 3-2 breaking ball. That was a big, big pitch.”
Marte gave the Pirates some wiggle room with a single in the bottom of the seventh that plated Clint Barmes.
Watson and Grilli took care of the rest.
The 36-year-old Grilli, closing for the first time in his journeyman career, entered to the powerful chords of the song “Whipped” by Pearl Jam. He retired the Cubs in order in the ninth, striking out Nate Schierholtz looking to end it. Grilli celebrated with a fist pump as fireworks exploded behind him.
“My heart was beating a little faster, but controllable,” Grilli said. “Facing the heart of the order, I’ve done that before.”
Notes: Pittsburgh LHP Jeff Locke pitched six innings in an extended spring training game on Tuesday. Locke is Pittsburgh’s fifth starter and will make his season debut on Sunday in Los Angeles. .… Sveum reiterated Carlos Marmol remains the team’s closer. Marmol struggled during Monday’s 3-1 victory and was pulled after giving up a run and two hits while retiring just one batter. … The series wraps up on Thursday. James McDonald (12-8, 4.21 ERA in 2012) starts for Pittsburgh against Chicago’s Travis Wood (6-13, 4.27). … McCutchen swiped second in the sixth for his 100th career stolen base.