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Samardzija ices Pirates in Cubs win

The SportsXchange

PITTSBURGH -- It was fitting that Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija pitched so well on this kind of opening day.

Snow wiped out batting practice Monday morning at PNC Park and even though it turned out to be a sunny afternoon, the game-time temperature was 41 just degrees with a 12-mph wind blowing out to center field.

"Just like back in high school at Valparaiso pitching against Michigan City," Samardzija, a native of Northwest Indiana, said with a smile. "I've pitched on a lot of days like this. It doesn't bother me."

Samardzija cut through the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup like he was back in high school, pitching two-hit ball over eight shutout innings as the Cubs overcame a ninth-inning meltdown by closer Carlos Marmol to post a 3-1 victory.

"I think it's the best game he's pitched," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "He really followed the game plan and kept throwing the two-seam (fastball) down in the zone the whole game. He did a great job."

Samardzija (1-0), once an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, was rewarded with his first opening day assignment after making a successful conversation from reliever to starter last season. He was 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in 28 starts for a team that lost 101 games.

"When they put that kind of faith in you, you want to reward them for it and not let it blow up in their faces," Samardzija said. "I felt like it was the best game I've ever pitched and the key word is pitch. I've had better stuff but I don't think I've ever done a better job of working the ball in and out and up and down like I did today."

The 6-foot-5 right-hander struck out nine and walked one.

Staked to a 2-0 lead when Anthony Rizzo connected for a two-run home run in the top of the first inning off A.J. Burnett (0-1), Samardzija walked Starling Marte to start the bottom half. Garrett Jones reached on an error by Brent Lillibridge, who was subbing at second base for injured Gold Glove winner Darwin Barney.

Samardzija got Andrew McCutchen to hit into a fielder's choice, however, before striking out Pedro Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez.

Samardzija retired 14 batters in a row at one point between the second and sixth innings.

"We kind of let him off the hook in the first inning but you've got to tip your cap to him because he really settled down and pitched a good game," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "He just never allowed us to get anything going against him."

Samardzija was pulled after throwing 110 pitches.

"He wasn't going back out for the ninth inning," Sveum said. "He'd done his job."

Marmol made things inteeresting in the ninth, though. He gave up an RBI single to Alvarez before walking Sanchez to give the Pirates runners on first and second with one out and the score 3-1.

Marmol was pulled and left-hander James Russell got the switch-hitting Walker to fly out to shallow right field.

Sveum then called on right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa, who had 220 saves in 12 seasons in his native Japan, to make his major-league debut and he induced Russell Martin to hit a game-ending pop fly to center field for the save.

"We had the weapons to get out of the jam and I used them," Sveum said. "Carlos is still the closer and we ended winning the game. Everything worked out fine."

The Cubs struck quickly to open the scoring as Rizzo hit a first-pitch two-run home run to right-center with one out in the first after Starling Castro singled.

"I couldn't tell you what the pitch was or what the count was because I just blacked out when I hit it," Rizzo said. "There's so much emotion going through you because it's opening day and it's your first at-bat."

Welington Castillo drove in the Cubs' other run with a double to the gap in right-center in the sixth inning, pushing the lead to 3-0 while chasing Burnett.

Castillo had two doubles and Castro also had two of the Cubs' six hits.

Burnett, making the first opening-day start of his 15-year career, gave up three runs and six hits in 5 2/3 innings with one walk and 10 strikeouts. The strikeout total tied a Pirates' record for opening day set by Bob Veale in 1965 and matched by John Candelaria in 1983.

"It was a lot of fun, the crowd was into it and I really enjoyed it," Burnett said. "The only downside, obviously, is we lost. I let (Samardzija) get a two-run lead and that let him settle in."

NOTES: The Cubs placed Barney on the 15-day disabled list before the game with a left knee laceration and Lillibridge took his place in the lineup. Barney was injured Saturday during the Cubs' final exhibition game at Houston when he slid into a concrete side wall while chasing a foul pop up. Sveum said he would "wing it" at second base while Barney is out, not committing to a full-time starter. ... Chicago also made a number of other roster moves, including selecting the contracts of left-hander Hisanori Takahasi, Lillibridge and infielder Alberto Gonzalez, placing right-hander Scott Baker (elbow) on the 60-day disabled list, placing right-hander Matt Garza (left lat strain) and third baseman Ian Stewart (left quad strain) on the 15-day DL and designating right-hander Robert Whitenack for assignment. ... Jones, who played right field, and Sanchez, who played first base, were both in Pittsburgh's starting lineup. The plan going into spring training was to platoon the right-handed hitting Jones with the left-handed hitting Sanchez at first base. However, Sanchez earned a spot in the starting lineup after hitting .302 with four home runs in 43 at-bats during the exhibition season. ... The three-game series resumes Wednesday following an off day Tuesday, with right-hander Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03 last season) pitching for the Cubs against Pittsburgh left-hander Wandy Rodriguez (12-13, 3.76).
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