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Chicago Cubs

Samardzija, Cubs stop Pirates in opener

Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija delivers during the second inning Sunday against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Cubs won the season opener, 3-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija delivers during the second inning Sunday against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Cubs won the season opener, 3-1. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Opening day brings hope for local Cubs fans

PITTSBURGH – Jeff Samardzija struck out nine in eight nearly flawless innings, and the Cubs held on for a 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday.

The right-hander allowed just two hits and walked one as the Cubs won on Opening Day for the first time since 2009. Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer, and Wellington Castillo added an RBI double for the Cubs.

Kyuji Fujikawa got a save in his major league debut after closer Carlos Marmol struggled.

A.J. Burnett, making the first opening day start of his lengthy career, gave up three runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings, striking out 10. Pittsburgh however began a season of high expectations with a thud.

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.

The Cubs 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.

It continued a troubling trend at home for the Pirates when Burnett takes the mound. Pittsburgh failed to score a single run in Burnett's final three starts at PNC Park in 2012, part of a miserable collapse that sent the ballclub to its 20th straight losing season.

Burnett couldn't even catch a break while attempting to keep his pitching hand dry. The rosin bag literally exploded while he was tapping it against his hip during the top of the fifth, showering the back of the pitcher's mound and Burnett's leg with dust.

Pittsburgh's offense was just as faulty against Samardzija.

The Cubs' new ace retired 14 straight after Walker singled to lead off the second. Working low in the strike zone, Samardzija kept inducing the Pirates to either pound the ball into the ground or strike out.

Pittsburgh grounded out 12 times and only managed to get two balls out of the infield before Samardzija gave way to 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 219 saves in the Japanese League before arriving in Chicago in the offseason, forced Russell Martin to pop to center to end it.

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.

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