PITTSBURGH – Edwin Jackson still is in the process of getting to know his Cubs teammates, but watching from the dugout Monday made one thing perfectly clear.
He will have plenty of backup when he takes the mound for his first start of the season tonight against the Pirates.
The Cubs’ defense was nearly flawless in Monday’s 3-1 Opening Day win, headlined by Jeff Samardzija’s two-hit effort over eight innings. Shortstop Starlin Castro demonstrated not only his range but his ability to throw runners out from the edge of the infield.
Second baseman Brent Lillibridge made up for a first-inning error with a couple of sparkling plays while first baseman Anthony Rizzo also snagged a hard liner that kept Samardzija’s gem intact.
The defensive support was more than enough to boost Jackson’s confidence.
“We know those are plays our team is capable of making,” Jackson said. “It just makes you want to go out and make the hitters put the ball in play and be aggressive around the strike zone. You don’t necessarily feel like you’ve got to pitch a perfect game. You can count on your team to make plays behind you.”
Jackson is coming off a roller coaster spring when he had a 5.25 ERA. In his final start against the Astros, Jackson gave up five runs on five hits in four innings, when he also struck out nine. He also will start the Cubs’ home opener Monday against Milwaukee.
But he wants to get off on the right foot tonight in Pittsburgh.
“It’s always good to get the ball rolling in a positive direction,” Jackson said. “Of course, it’s a long season and the first start doesn’t necessarily dictate how you’re going to pitch that season, but to get off on a positive start, it definitely helps.”
Know your role: Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa earned the save Monday, but he’s not trying to displace closer Carlos Marmol.
Marmol struggled in the one-third of an inning he pitched in the ninth inning, facing only four batters. He walked a hitter, hit another and allowed an RBI single. Fujikawa retired the one batter he faced on two pitches after James Russell picked up the second out of the inning.
“It’s one of the most difficult positions to pitch in and I always have to be ready if that time comes,” Fujikawa said through an interpreter Monday. “When Marmol pitches back to back, I have to be ready. That’s nothing I can control. My job is to get three or four outs that I’m asked for.”
For starters: Cubs Baseball President Theo Epstein was asked Monday how a second wild card spot could change his approach if the Cubs are in contention around the trading deadline. He said he still would go through an evaluation process and explore options if necessary. But none of that matters, he said, without a good start to the season.
“We haven’t had good starts around here as a rule,” Epstein said Monday. “A good start can create momentum in and of itself that maybe transcends where it puts you in the standings because there’s a confidence and players start to get a sense of destiny and those close games can really start to go your way when you believe. Conversely, a bad start puts you in a position where those things are hard to come by.”
The Cubs face a tough stretch ahead. After finishing in Pittsburgh, the Cubs head to Atlanta before squaring off against the Brewers, defending World Series champion San Franciso Giants and Texas Rangers at Wrigley Field.
Rizzo said getting started well depends on the Cubs’ focus.
“It’s like a one-game playoff every day for 162-plus (games), hopefully,” Rizzo said. “We just have to play hard and everyone has to have each other’s backs. When everyone gets each other’s backs, everyone’s going to get emotional and that emotion will carry us all year.”