Through the first four innings of the Cubs-Brewers game on a freezing Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, it felt like the Cubs had absolutely no chance to win the game. They (once again) couldn't do anything at the plate, they made two awful throwing errors that were a part of a three-run Brewers second inning, and they of course had lost their last four games.

But, incredibly (in my opinion, anyway), the Cubs scored the game's final six runs after not scoring any through the fourth inning, and got a nice 6-3 win over their division rivals. The win improved the Cubs' record to 3-5.

The Cubs got their scoring started on an RBI groundout by Anthony Rizzo in the fifth, and got another run on an RBI groundout from Starlin Castro in the seventh. Following that Castro at-bat, Rizzo laced a pitch from Brewers left-hander Mike Gonzalez for a two-out RBI double to tie the game at 3-3. And in terms of things that were unexpected in the game, that Rizzo double was right up there, as the Cubs' first baseman came into the game 0-6 with five strikeouts on the season against lefties, and a .191 batting average and .588 OPS against lefties in his career (although that's of course a young one). I've tweeted a bit recently about my concerns in regards to him against lefties, so hopefully that will get him going. Because the Cubs are going to need a lot more than a .600-ish OPS from their No. 3 hitter against left-handed pitching if they're going to play him everyday.

The eighth inning was the Cubs' most productive inning at the plate so far this season. Nate Schierholtz led off the inning with a double, Welington Castillo sacrifice bunted to move Schierholtz to third, pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro walked, and another pinch-hitter in Scott Hairston then hit a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded to score Schierholtz for the go-ahead run. David DeJesus then followed with a two-run single for his third straight hit of the game, and to give the Cubs six runs in the game, which is sadly their highest amount of runs scored in a game so far this season (and that's of course only through eight games, but still... not good).

As for the pitching side of things for the Cubs in this game, Travis Wood followed up his tremendous performance against the Pirates last week (6 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs) with another solid outing. The 26-year-old southpaw went 6 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits, two earned runs, and three walks, while striking out six. He didn't get credit for the win, but he was very impressive again. If he keeps pitching anything like this, he's going to be a damn fine No. 4-5 starter for the Cubs.

The pitcher that was credited with the win for the Cubs? Carlos Marmol. After Sveum said on Monday that he plans to use Marmol mainly when the Cubs are trailing as the right-hander works to get his confidence back/regain form, Sveum surprisingly put Marmol in for the eighth inning with the game tied at 3-3. And Marmol responded well, throwing a scoreless inning, although he would've given up a run if Castro didn't make a spectacular diving stop and throw to end the inning.

Marmol's replacement in the closer's role, Kyuji Fujikawa, had his first outing as the Cubs' official closer in the ninth inning, and threw a scoreless inning for the save.

Let's go to the bullets for notable things from Tuesday night for the Cubs...

  • Although the eighth inning ended up being a great one for the Cubs at the plate, I didn't like how Dale Sveum managed it. After Nate Schierholtz led off the inning with a double, Sveum chose to have Welington Castillo bunt. Castillo is 8 for 21 (.381) on the year with a 1.028 OPS. He's the team's hottest hitter. Yet Sveum chose to have Castillo bunt with a runner already in scoring position, to leave it up to Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge... and we know how terrible each of them have been. Sveum then chose to have Dioner Navarro bat in front of Lillibridge with first and third one out. Navarro is certainly the better hitter, but he's also as slow as they come, and was a very obvious double play candidate that could've ended the rally with one swing. Sveum then pinch-hit Scott Hairston and had Alberto Gonzalez run for Navarro. That's wasting nearly the whole bench in one inning and leaving you in big trouble if the game goes into extras. Again, it all worked out just fine, but Sveum's decisions were very, very questionable, and could've easily backfired.
  • Seriously, Brent Lillibridge is garbage. He's still hitless on the year even. Thankfully, Darwin Barney will go on a minor league rehab assignment this weekend, and will be ready to come off the disabled list Tuesday (Source: Bruce Miles).
  • It was nice to see David DeJesus finally get it going at the plate. The veteran went 3-5 (bringing his average up to .192) with a double, two runs batted in, and two runs scored. He also impressed on the basepaths in the eighth inning by advancing to second on a pitch that didn't get far away from Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. DeJesus ran right when the pitch went into the dirt, and put himself in scoring position for what could've been a nice Cubs insurance run heading into the ninth. They of course didn't end up needing that seventh run, though.
  • I just love the way Travis Wood is pitching so far. Changing speeds well, using both sides of the plate, and looking very composed. He's pitching like a guy that's been around a lot longer than he has.
  • The Cubs' 2012 Rule V Draft pick Hector Rondon is really impressing me out of the pen. The 25-year-old Venezuelan threw 2/3 IP of scoreless baseball on Tuesday night, and has yet to allow a run in his 3 2/3 innings pitched overall. He's also struck out six batters and allowed just one hit on the season. He's showing good velocity on the fastball and a solid slider. He really may have the nastiest stuff in the Cubs' bullpen at the moment, and definitely looks like a keeper.
  • Carlos Marmol gave up a triple and got lucky to avoid giving up a run as I said, but I thought he looked good. His slider particularly looked better than it has in any of his previous outings. I could definitely see a hot streak coming from him soon, if it hasn't already started.
  • Kyuji Fujikawa looked very comfortable in the closer's role, and that's no surprise given that he saved over 200 games in Japan. He pumps the strike zone and is confident in his fastball. He's very good at changing eye levels with it, usually is close to the catcher's target, and really has some nice movement on his two-seamer. And his splitter of course is nasty. He should do well against left-handed hitters with the two-seam fastball on the inside corner Maddux style, and with the splitter dipping down and away after looking enticing to left-handed hitters when it leaves Fujikawa's hand.

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Even with the Cubs starting out with a 2-4 record and giving us little reason to think things will go better than expected for the team in 2013, the home opener at Wrigley Field is always an exciting day for Cubs fans.

And this time around, the day serves as a nice reminder that there's still 81 games to go at Wrigley this year (compared to 75 left on the road). Maybe the Cubs can actually use their home field to their advantage and play well at Wrigley this year? It would certainly make the next six months at The Friendly Confines a bit friendlier.

Anyway, let's preview the home opener, in which the Cubs (2-4) battle their division rival Milwaukee Brewers (1-5)...

Game Time: 1:20 PM CT
TV: WGN

Lineups

Cubs
1. David DeJesus, CF (2-18; .380 OPS)
2. Starlin Castro, SS (6-25; .480 OPS)
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (4-21; .768 OPS)
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF (4-23; .382 OPS)
5. Nate Schierholtz, RF (4-15; .922 OPS)
6. Welington Castillo, C (5-14; .900 OPS)
7. Luis Valbuena, 3B (2-16; .535 OPS)
8. Brent Lillibridge, 2B (0-11; .000 OPS)
9. Edwin Jackson, P (0-0; .000 OPS)

Brewers 
1. Norichika Aoki, RF (10-27; .932 OPS)
2. Carlos Gomez, CF (4-25; .360 OPS)
3. Ryan Braun, LF (4-10; 1.338 OPS)
4. Rickie Weeks, 2B (8-25; .929 OPS)
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C (4-20; .427 OPS)
6. Alex Gonzalez, SS (3-21; .494 OPS)
7. Martin Maldonado, 1B (1-9; .422 OPS)
8. Yuniesky Betancourt, 3B (4-13; .665 OPS)
9. Marco Estrada, P (1-2; 1.000 OPS)


Pitching Matchup

Edwin Jackson (0-1, 3.60 ERA) vs. Marco Estrada (0-0, 7.20 ERA)

Edwin Jackson makes his first start at Wrigley Field as a Cub after signing a four-year, $52 million deal in the offseason. He gave up two earned runs in five innings in his first start on April 3rd, when the Cubs lost 3-0 to the Pirates. The veteran right-hander only gave up three hits and only walked one in the game, and likely would've gone another inning (he threw 92 pitches) if it weren't his first start of the season. Jackson was brilliant vs. the Brewers in 2012, allowing just one earned run in 15 innings over two starts.

Marco Estrada was hit hard in his opening start against the Colorado Rockies at Miller Park. The 29-year-old right-hander allowed nine hits, four earned runs, and two home runs over five innings in a losing effort. I watched most of that outing on TV, and Estrada left many pitches up in the zone as the nine hits and two home runs would lead you to believe. If he does that again today, he's really playing with fire, as the wind is currently howling out (and we know that can quickly change) at Wrigley Field. However, he dominated the Cubs in 2012, going 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in four starts. He struck out 22 Cubs in 18 innings.


Brewers vs. Jackson notables

Norichika Aoki is 0 for 7.

Jonathan Lucroy is 5 for 12, with 1 HR, and a 1.083 OPS

Cubs vs. Estrada notables

Alfonso Soriano is 3 for 9 with 3 doubles.

Starlin Castro is 3 for 9 with a double.


Other Notes...

  • 670 The Score is hearing that the Cubs and the City of Chicago have reached an agreement on the Wrigley Field renovation deal, and that the deal will be announced later today. Kind of a big deal.
  • Dale Sveum said before the game Carlos Marmol will pitch in middle relief during games the Cubs are trailing until he can get it going. Pitching coach Chris Bosio added, "We want Marmol to regain the closer's role. We will work him back in."
  • As I said earlier, the wind is howling out, according to pretty much half of the people I follow on Twitter. So this could be a high-scoring game.
  • Brewers superstar Ryan Braun is in the lineup after missing the last three games due to neck spasms. Certainly wouldn't have minded him taking the series off. Braun's return is a huge lift for a Brewers team that already has Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart on the disabled list.

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Carlos Marmol may be out as Cubs closer after another meltdown.


And unfortunately I'm not talking about Kate, but B.J. and Justin Upton of the Atlanta Braves.

The Upton brothers were acquired by the Braves in the offseason, and until Saturday night, B.J. was 0 for 15 with a league-leading nine strikeouts at the dish, while Justin was playing like the superstar everybody thought he'd be while a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Well, Justin kept doing his thing, and B.J. finally got it going as well, as the brothers combined for three home runs (two from Justin, one from B.J.) in the Braves' 6-5 come-from-behind win over the Cubs at Turner Field. Of course, I'm not sure how impressed we should be by two of those home runs right now, as they came off Cubs closer (well, maybe not anymore as I'll explain) Carlos Marmol, and everybody is lighting him up so far in 2013. Marmol entered as the Cubs were up 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, and proceeded to give up a solo shot to B.J. to lead off the inning, and a solo shot to Justin with one out to give the Braves a walkoff victory. Justin now has five homers in his first five games a Brave.

In Marmol's 1 2/3 innings pitched on the season, he's allowed six hits and five earned runs, giving him a 27.00 ERA  (that would be a run allowed for each out recorded). After the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said that the team will talk about replacing Marmol as closer:

"We're definitely going to talk about it now," Sveum said after the game. 

"You got [Shawn] Camp and [James] Russell that seem to be pretty efficient when they pitch," Sveum said of his seventh-inning pitchers. "They've never had to do the last three outs of the game but there is a mix of pitches, those are options."
Source: ESPN Chicago

Kyuji Fujikawa seemed like the logical replacement for Marmol coming into Saturday, but he was awful himself in the game, allowing four hits, one walk, and three earned runs in the eighth inning. Going into the inning, the Cubs had a 5-1 lead. We have to remember the 32-year-old is an MLB rookie, and while he looked terrific in his previous outings, is likely to have some rough outings in his first season.

It's a shame the bullpen blew the game, because starting pitcher Carlos Villanueva was terrific for the Cubs. In his first outing as a Cub, the 29-year-old veteran allowed just one earned runs, six hits, and two walks in 6 2/3 innings, while striking out six. Villanueva's fastball was in the 87-89 mph range most of the night, but he really changed speeds well and threw four or five pitches with success. His change-up was particularly impressive, as his arm action really sold the pitch well and he had Braves hitters out in front all night. If he and Scott Feldman are in a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation when Matt Garza returns, Villanueva would appear to have the edge after the first turn through the rotation.

Offensively, the Cubs finally showed some life after scoring just seven runs in the first four games. The Cubs got it going in the first with an RBI single from Nate Schierholtz, who surprisingly has been the team's best hitter in the early going. In the fourth inning, Luis Valbuena got his first hit of the year on a solo blast to right field. And in the fifth, Anthony Rizzo launched a two-run bomb for his second homer of the year, before Welington Castillo hit an RBI single later in the inning.

However, in the eighth inning, the offense did something we've seen all too many times in recent years. The Cubs had the bases loaded, with no outs, and their 1-2-3 hitters coming up. David DeJesus grounded out, Starlin Castro flew out into shallow center field, and Rizzo struck out. Inexcusable to not come away with at least one run there, and that was as big of a sequence in the game as the meltdowns from the bullpen were. You immediately felt the Cubs would pay for not getting a run there, and they certainly did.

Let's go to the bullets for some more notable things to take away from Saturday night's loss:

  • Check out The Friendly Blogfines' Twitter account timeline for many of my thoughts on the Marmol situation.
  • If Sveum is really looking at Camp and Russell for the closer's role, hopefully he just goes with a "closer by committee" method where he goes by matchups. For example, while Russell's splits weren't much different in 2012 in terms of vs righties and lefties, he's been significantly better vs lefties (.708 OPS allowed) than righties (.837 OPS allowed).
  • While they all got hits on Saturday night (and Rizzo hit the home run I mentioned earlier), the Cubs' 1-4 hitters (in the lineup vs righties) are all batting under .200. Kind of hard to win games that way...
  • Nate Schierholtz, meanwhile, keeps hitting in the No. 5 spot. He's now batting .364 on the year with a 1.227 OPS (yes, very, very small sample size). No, he won't keep it up anywhere close to those numbers, but if he can just be decent (I'm talking a .750+ OPS or so), that will be a major boost to the Cubs' offense.
  • Welington Castillo also looks at the plate so far, and had two hits in this game. One of those of course drove in a run. He also (stunningly) stole a base on a delayed steal.

And this isn't about the game, but the MLB Draft in June, which frankly is something that is probably more exciting to look forward to than the actual Cubs games this year. General manager Jed Hoyer had some interesting quotes that CSN Chicago gathered (make sure to give the whole article a read) on what the Cubs' philosophy will be entering the draft, in which they hold the No. 2 overall pick:
 
“We’ve been really open about the fact that we need a lot more pitching in the organization, whether that comes at the second pick or not,” Hoyer said Saturday at Turner Field. “We’re really very open to taking a hitter at No. 2. But I think it’s a safe bet we’re going to pound away at pitching throughout the draft, like we did last year.”
During the upcoming 10-game homestand at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will run their midpoint meetings in Chicago and set the agenda for the rest of the spring scouting season. They are looking at around six possible players for their top pick and will have to figure out how to divide their $10.6 million bonus pool.

“We’ll really sit down at that point and make sure that our group (for) No. 2 is inclusive,” Hoyer said. “(We’ll) make sure there’s no one else we should be considering. And then at that point, we’ll really focus on getting all the information we need on those guys.”

CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney adds some information in the article on players the Cubs are known to be scouting for the No. 2 overall pick:
Team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting/player development Jason McLeod recently visited Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows in their Atlanta-area homes while weighing what to do with the No. 2 overall pick. 

The Cubs watched Frazier play on Wednesday and ran a workout for the Loganville High School outfielder the next day. Meadows, the Grayson High School outfielder, also worked out for the Cubs on Thursday during a separate showcase. 

Epstein scouted Stanford right-hander Mark Appel on Friday in Los Angeles. Appel was one out away from a complete-game victory against USC. He has begun to erase some of the doubts during a dominant senior season (5-2, 1.13 ERA, 71 strikeouts in 55.2 innings) after turning down the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

There’s a sense that the Cubs will come away with one of the frontline college pitchers – Appel, Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray or Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea. Hoyer confirmed that the Cubs feel there are multiple pitchers with high enough ceilings to justify the No. 2 slot.


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Cubs vs. Braves 4/5: Quick Pregame Stat Breakdown

Posted by Michael Castillo | 4/05/2013 05:20:00 PM | ,

When the Cubs and Braves face off in Atlanta tonight, Scott Feldman will make his debut start for the Northsiders. He was 0-3 with a 11.25 ERA in 20 innings of Cactus League ball. Feldman is coming off of a struggling 2012 campaign that, other than a one month stretch from late Jute to late July, was an utter disaster in Texas.

Feldman's never started at Turner Field, though back on June 19, 2008, he held the Braves to two earned in a seven-inning no-decision at Rangers' Ballpark in Arlington. In the five years removed from that start, not a single Braves player Feldman faced remains on the roster. As for the current Braves, only B.J. Upton has a significant history against Feldman, and he's a robust one for 11 with four strikeouts in 14 plate appearances.

Other stats of note:

  • While Alfonso Soriano has got off to a slow start in 2013 --he has one hit in his first 12 at bats-- the 37-year-old will be playing against what could be his favorite opponent, in the Braves. In 56 career games, Soriano has 18 homers, while sporting incredible slash stats at .313/.364/.648/1.012. His 141 career OPS+ against Atlanta is tied for his his third highest mark among opponents, trailing only better metrics against Arizona (175 OPS+) and Texas (142 OPS+). Soriano has eight career home runs at Turner Field, including a three-HR performance on June 8, 2007.
  •  The Braves will trot out Mike Minor. The middle-of-the-rotation lefty walked 14 batters in 23 innings of Grapefruit League work this spring, and nearly allowed two runners per inning. He faced the Cubs back on July 5th of last year, getting the win, while striking out six in 6 2/3 innings. In that game, Minor out-dueled Matt Garza, who gave up two first inning home runs to Jason Heyward and Bryan McCann.

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Travis Wood was absolutely spectacular, and Carlos Marmol (again) tried his hardest to give the game away in a 3-2 Cubs win in the rubber match of their season-opening series against the Pirates Thursday at PNC Park.

Wood threw six innings of scoreless baseball, allowing just one hit (a Clint Barmes double), while walking two and striking out four. The 26-year-old southpaw looked as good as the numbers suggest, as he located his pitches beautifully, pitched well to both sides of the plate, and changed speeds very well. It was a pitching exhibition. Dale Sveum elected to pull Wood while he was cruising after 85 pitches, likely due to the fact it was Wood's first start of the season, and to ensure that Wood had a great start to build off of. 

In relief of Wood, Shawn Camp, James Russell, and Kyuji Fujikawa were outstanding, combining to toss two innings with no hits or walks allowed, and striking out three. 

However, in the ninth inning, Carlos Marmol once again was a mess, and it appeared he was going to blow the Cubs' 3-0 lead. Starling Marte singled to leadoff the ninth for the Pirates, Russell Martin then walked, Andrew McCutchen then hit an RBI single, and Gaby Sanchez followed with another RBI single. With no outs and the Cubs' lead trimmed to 3-2, Sveum left Marmol in, and Marmol (miraculously) got out of it by striking out Pedro Alvarez and getting the usual Cub-killing Neil Walker to hit into a 4-6-3 double play. 

Marmol isn't the only Cub struggling, though- The Cubs' offense as a whole is. Through three games, the Cubs have scored six runs, gotten 11 hits, and walked five times. Not good. The team has won two of their first three games, but strictly because of how tremendous the starting pitching has been. 

But, one bright spot so far in the lineup has been Nate Schierholtz in the five-hole. The veteran outfielder saw a whopping 24 pitches in his four at bats Thursday, and the last pitch he saw on the day ended up over the center field wall for a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning. Those two runs obviously ended up being huge.

The Cubs' first run of the day came on a Starlin Castro two-out single in the top of the third to drive in Wood. Before Schierholtz's homer, the Castro single was the Cubs' only hit with a runner in scoring position so far this season.

So, the Cubs bring are happy to bring a 2-1 record into Atlanta to begin (starting Friday night) a three-game series vs. the Braves, but there's certainly major concerns about the offense and closer situation.

Here's some more notable things to take away from Thursday in regards to the Cubs:


  • Brent Lillibridge has been about as bad as you can be through three games. He is now 0-9, with no walks, and four strikeouts. He also booted a routine groundball on Opening Day and couldn't handle a Dioner Navarro throw that would've had Andrew McCutchen caught stealing at second base Thursday. It was a one-hop throw and by no means easy to handle, but it's a play that Darwin Barney makes. It's to the point that I think the Cubs may be better off starting Alberto Gonzalez, a career .595 hitter. Lillibridge isn't much better off at the plate himself over his career, sporting just a .623 OPS, which was greatly inflated by what appears to be a very flukey 2011 season with the White Sox where he had an .845 OPS in 216 plate appearances. Gonzalez has still played at second base in all three games, coming in as a defensive replacement for Lillibridge in two of them. If neither of them are going to be an offensive factor, give me the guy that is at least going to catch the ball and play solid defense. I'm not sure Lillibridge turns the double play that Gonzalez did to end Thursday's game.
  • Kyuji Fujikawa is very impressive so far. He looks very composed and throws strikes. His fastball command and splitter are particularly impressive. The fastball isn't overpowering, but it doesn't need to better than the 89-93 mph range Fujikawa's throwing in when you locate it like he does. 
  • Nate Schierholtz has looked every bit as good in right field as he has at the plate. He made a Web Gem-worthy diving catch on Thursday, and has gotten very good jumps on flyballs. 
  • Catcher Dioner Navarro got his first start as a Cub, and went 0 for 4 at the plate. I mentioned his throw earlier to second base that was a one-hopper, but a good defensive middle infielder handles it cleanly and tags out a speedy Andrew McCutchen. The veteran Navarro should be a pretty solid backup catcher. He's not exactly in tip top shape, though.
  • David DeJesus is hitless so far on the season, but don't worry, he'll be fine. He's at least seeing a lot of pitches as he always does and led off Thursday's game with a walk.
  • For those hoping Sveum gives up on Marmol as closer, here's what the Cubs' skipper had to say in the postgame according to ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers:
  • "I'm not doing anything. We're 2-1. Everyone is in the same roles heading into Atlanta."

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via ChicagoNow.com

Consider Jeff Samardzija to be the Cubs' Ben Sheets, as an homage to his sky-high potential and frustrating inconsistency. Monday afternoon in Pittsburgh however, Samardzija was good as he's ever been, striking out nine Pirates in eight scoreless innings, and allowing just three base runners in his first career Opening Day start. The Cubs needed three bullpen arms in ninth, but it was Kyuji Fujikawa that closed the door on the Bucs for Samardzija, to cap a 3-1 Cubs win in Pittsburgh.

For Samardzija, it was his best start in the bigs. The 28-year-old earned a game score of 86, besting a mark of 84 that he set in Pittsburgh back on July 23rd of last year, when he surrendered just one hit in eight innings.

Over his past three starts at PNC Park, Samardzija is 3-0, sporting a miniscule 1.08 ERA in 25 innings. Perhaps more impressive, is that he's allowed just 10 base runners and a K/BB ratio of 23 to 3. Needless to say, this Shark loves the waters around Three Rivers.

Samardzija showed great command of his pitches, and his control on the mound gave way to control on the field. Just two of 18 balls put in play went down as hits for Pittsburgh, giving Samardzija a BABIP of .111. Using his heavy sinker, nearly everything put in play was on the ground, making it easy for the Cubs' infield, who played without the injured Darwin Barney.

In the time since Samardzija first came up to the big leagues in 2008, and through his move from the bullpen to the front of the rotation, it's been fascinating to watch his progression from being merely a talented thrower with a live arm, to a mature 28-year-old 'pitcher'.

Samardzija spoke to the media after the game, stressing the need to maintain composure above all else. He told reporters that when the Pirates had two on in the first inning, he was more than content with letting Starling Marte score, because one run wouldn't mean the game nor knock him off his rocker.

Yes, it was the first inning of the first game, but for an aggressive pitcher entering his prime with pressure to perform at the top of his game, it's a calming approach to hear to verbalized.

Would Carlos Zambrano have been calm in the first inning of an Opening Day game as soon as it didn't go to plan? No. We saw Zambrano crumble numerous times on Opening Day in those situations, which often would up with Adam Dunn and Jason Heyward parking long bombs into the seats.

With a lineup devoid of talent in the bottom third, it won't be an easy season for Samardzija, but if his maturity continues to manifest, he'll keep performing to the level that Jim Hendry saw in him when he ripped from the grasp of the NFL.

Samardzija's next start will come on Sunday in Atlanta against the Braves, a team in which he was 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts against last season.

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Just 161 more games to go for the Cubs to meet their quest of a perfect season!

Realistically, I think we'd all settle for 70-ish wins and some improvements from (likely) long-term pieces such as Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo, and Jeff Samardzija. And all of those guys certainly came to play in the Cubs' 3-1 Opening Day victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

Samardzija in particular, was nothing short of sensational. In his first career Opening Day start, the 28-year-old threw eight scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and one walk, while striking out nine over 110 pitches. He had everything working. The four-seam fastball was consistently 94-97 mph (even after passing the 100-pitch mark in the eighth), his cutter looked sharp, his slider was absolutely filthy, and he mixed in a very good splitter as well. Simply put, he looked like an ace. If you're still doubting that he's for real, it's time to stop.

It turned out that in the top of the first inning, the Cubs got all the runs they'd need on the day. After Castro lined a single to left for one of his two hits on the day against A.J. Burnett, Rizzo hit the first pitch he saw in 2013 an estimated 438 feet to center field for a two-run homer. That was after Rizzo went homerless in Spring Training (once again showing how very little Spring Training statistics mean).

Here's video of Rizzo's bomb (and with each Len Kasper and Pat Hughes' calls, even):



Beautiful swing from the Cubs' 23-year-old first baseman, and what a sound off the bat.

Twice in the game, Cubs manager Dale Sveum dialed up the hit and run with Castillo at the plate and Nate Schierholtz on first base, and each time, Castillo doubled to the right field wall. The second time, Schierholtz was able to score for the Cubs' third and final run of the day.

The Cubs took a 3-0 lead into the ninth inning, and all of us watching saw a Carlos Marmol struggle coming. While he was much, much better than most Cubs fans realize in post-May 2012, Marmol struggled in the last couple weeks of 2013 Spring Training, and we know he gets in his funks where his command is an absolute disaster. And he is a streaky, rhythm guy; it usually takes him some time to get it going in the regular season.

Well, the 30-year-old right-hander looked exactly as I feared he would. Marmol threw just nine of his 19 pitches for strikes, and one of those strikes was thanks to the Pirates' Garrett Jones foolishly swinging at a slider five feet in front of the plate with a full count to lead off the ninth. Marmol would then hit Andrew McCutchen with a pitch, give up an RBI single to Pedro Alvarez, and walk Gaby Sanchez, before Sveum finally decided enough was enough, and pulled Marmol for left-hander James Russell, as Sveum wanted to make switch-hitter Neil Walker bat right-handed for the first time of the game.

Russell got Walker to fly out, and Sveum then brought in 32-year-old Kyuji Fujikawa, a right-hander that signed with the Cubs this offseason out of Japan. Fujikawa has never pitched in the major leagues, so this was his major league debut: Two runners on, two outs, bottom of the ninth, up two runs. No pressure! But Fujikawa was able to get the job done to pick up a save, and to get Cubs fans clamoring for him to be the new closer (more on that below).

Let's go to the bullets for more notable things from the game...
  • Brent Lillibridge came into the season as the likely whipping boy amongst Cubs fans, and his first game as a Cub didn't help the cause. Lillibridge went 0-3... with three strikeouts. One of those came with less than two outs and runners on second and third, a situation calling for contact. He also booted a routine groundball in the first inning. People can rip on Darwin Barney as a hitter all they want, but we already saw how much the Cubs miss the 2012 Gold Glover's defense today.
  • And overall, the bottom of the order looked like a mess for the Cubs. It was like three pitchers batting in a row today with Luis Valbuena, Lillibridge, and Samardzija. The Cubs had second and third with no outs in one inning, and predictably Valbuena, Lillibridge, and Samardzija (although you're never expecting a pitcher to come through at the plate) were unable to get a run in.
  • I already mentioned Starlin Castro's two hits on the day, and he also stole a base. Castro got a terrific jump & ran on a breaking ball, something you'd always prefer to run on. He also made a couple of tremendous plays in the hole, making a backhanded play and smoothly, quickly throwing a dart to first base. He is looking more confident and smooth at shortstop by the day. We already know he has the tools to be great there. Don't be surprised if he makes a huge jump defensively this year.
  • It's great to see Welington Castillo driving the ball the other way, which, again, he did twice in this game for doubles. When a hitter is doing that, it means they're seeing the ball well, and it also makes things difficult for the pitcher/scouting to gameplan how to attack Castillo. He's still struggling with sliders, but hopefully he'll learn to lay off them more in the future.
  • Len Kasper and Jim DeShaies were great in their regular season debut together. Very professional, good knowledge of the game, good chemistry, and a nice dose of humor mixed in. They're going to be very good together and, in time, at least, be regarded as one of the top announcing duos in the majors, in my opinion. Whatever the case, I don't think you're going to hear too many people complaining about the Len and JD duo, even if perhaps they aren't fans of the duo.
  • Ah, the closer controversy. After the game, Dale Sveum said in regards to Carlos Marmol, "He's still the closer. I'm not making any changes or anything like that. He just didn't have it today." 
  • I personally think Sveum handled the closer situation well today. He gave Marmol a chance to get out of it, but after the winning run reached base, brought in Russell (because of the matchup as explained earlier) and Fujikawa. And I still agree with what he's saying going forward about the closer role. You can't completely give up on Marmol as closer yet, both for Marmol mentally and for his trade value. Again, we've seen these funks from Marmol all too many times, but we've also seen him soon (or, at least at some point in the season) get a big hot streak going. He's streaky, and it's frustrating, but at the end of the year his numbers are usually going to end up pretty damn good. I just hope that Sveum keeps up the short-leash philosophy as he did today, and it sounds like that's what he plans to do.
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And now for something completely different... we'll conclude the post with a GIF of A.J. Burnett and an exploding rosin bag in the game:

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