The Cubs battled the Pirates to a standstill on Opening Day in Pittsburgh until extra innings, when Neil Walker took Carlos Villanueva deep to lead off the bottom of the tenth and walk off with the victory. Being the first real Cubs game after several months of winter, it was great to see the team in action and not completely embarrassing themselves (note I said "not completely," there were some things to definitely be embarrassed about; see below).
Usually we'd wait until the end of the series for Ivy to recap everything, but since there's an off-day after Opening Day, I figured we could use something to read. I took a while to gather my thoughts of the game as I ran errands and helped the wife clean the house...
Jeff Samardzija was very efficient in his seven innings of work, and most of his pitches seemed effortless. He didn't have the wipeout splitter working to my recollection, but generated enough weak contact and was helped a bit by a few shifts such that most of the balls put into play turned into outs anyway. Cubs Den has a nice Pitchf/x recap here for those of you interested in the nitty-gritty, but it was nice to see Samardzija spread his pitches over 7 innings instead of 5 like he does sometimes.
New Cubs leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio had himself a nice day, getting some well-placed hits (read: "lucky") in having the best Cubs debut of any player in nearly a century. I can't find the reference now but I read it on Twitter so it must be true!
Starlin Castro moved well as he did as promised and made it in time for Opening Day, turning all the batted balls he got to into outs. Even though the bat wasn't working (as was the case with most of the Cubs), he still played good defense.
Re: offense, though the Cubs couldn't sneak a run across, they did chase Francisco Liriano after 6 innings because they drove up Liriano's pitch count with a lot of great plate appearances. The results weren't there, but you try your best to chase the starter and get into the bullpen every time. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh has an excellent bullpen, but it was still a good show for Cubs patience.
I liked that Cubs manager Rick Renteria used Carlos Villanueva in the 10th. Villanueva would've started the Saturday game against the Phillies during the Cubs' first home stand, and would have had enough time to recover anyway, so why not. The problem was that Villanueva couldn't put Neil Walker away, and we all know what happened...
Renteria also called a lot of bunts. I get that the guys weren't doing well against Francisco Liriano, but giving away outs is annoying and probably dumb most of the time. On one such bunt, Jeff Samardzija bunted to force the runner at third, then didn't make it to first base in time to avoid the double play. The Cubs lost their replay challenge (the first in an official MLB regulation game if I'm not mistaken) on a close play that probably wouldn't have been as close if he'd just busted down the line, or if he'd made a better bunt. Oh well.
Bonifacio TOOTBLANed twice, once on a contact play and once in the 10th inning on a pickoff. Cool, you had a career game and got your hits in, but man, stay on base and don't make stupid outs. The Cubs again lost a replay review there, but that was Bonifacio's own fault. He would have had a third TOOTBLAN if Travis Ishikawa hadn't dropped the ball. Baserunning was ridiculous.
From a report by Mark Gonzalez, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein appears noncommittal on the status of extension talks with Jeff Samardzija.
"All contracts collectively form a market, and you have to be aware of the market and operate in the market when you're in free agency, and it affects everything you do, to a certain extent," Epstein said.
"But we have to make smart decisions for our situation, for the situation we're in now and the situation we're going to be in in a few years."
Epstein was addressing the escalating pricetags to extend elite pitchers, and this season is Samardzija's to prove he's elite. As we've often speculated, Samardzija can either be a significant trade chip or a long term anchor in the top-to-middle of the rotation. I don't believe Epstein is just going to table extension talks; he'll probably continue to check in on Samardzija every start (and between starts) and have Snapchats with the agent every now and then, as he (and we Cubs fans) keep track of Samardzija's progress on the mound as the season moves along. This is definitely the story to follow for the Cubs this season, aside from the whole Wrigley Field expansion saga (what's the deal with that, anyway?).
Enjoy the off day, folks.