Unfortunately for A.J. Burnett, he had no margin for error Monday.
He threw two poor pitches, back to back, in the first inning. He then pitched superbly for the remainder of his outing. But those two pitches put the Pirates in a hole, and their inability to produce offensively sent them to a 3-1 loss against the Chicago Cubs on opening day at PNC Park.
The Pirates' offensive struggles came against Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija, who pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out nine while allowing only two hits. Samardzija (1-0) had dominated the Pirates in recent outings. He pitched eight scoreless innings July 23, 2012, against the Pirates and earned a complete-game victory Sept. 8. Both games were at PNC Park.
"This is a great atmosphere to play," Samardzija said. "You face a lineup like Pittsburgh has, you know you've got to come ready to play. If you're a little off and you hit a nice stretch of [Garrett] Jones, [Andrew] McCutchen, then you throw [Neil] Walker in there and [Pedro] Alvarez -- you make a couple mistakes and they can make you pay."
Samardzija allowed a single to Walker to lead off the second, and the Pirates didn't get another hit until McCutchen's two-out double in the sixth.
"He came out and he was a beast out there," Burnett said. "He threw the ball well. What can you do?"
Samardzija's dominance allowed the Cubs' early lead to stand. Starlin Castro singled in the first before Anthony Rizzo destroyed a first-pitch fastball that leaked over the plate, sending it over the section of seats just to the right of dead-center field for a two-run homer. McCutchen took only a few cursory steps toward the ball as it sailed past.
"I went to Russ [Martin] and said, hey, he's supposed to hit that ball out," Burnett said. "It's one of those that came back over the middle. He's an aggressive swinger and he got me."
Burnett (0-1) pitched 5 2/3 innings and struck out 10, allowing three runs on six hits.
"It was good to come away with three runs with Burnett throwing the ball as well as he did," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.
Burnett struck out the side in the second and third around one hit.
The Pirates had runners on first and third with one out in the first, but Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez struck out to end the threat. They had a runner on with one out in the second, but again two strikeouts ended the inning.
Burnett walked Nate Schierholtz to lead off the fourth, and a double off the right-field wall from Wellington Castillo put runners on second and third. Burnett struck out Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge, then forced Samardzija to ground out to end the inning and escape that jam.
"He immediately went to some chase zones," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were fortunate to get Valbuena out after Castillo's double because we stayed back in the middle [of the infield]. A ground ball to second or short scores one there."
The Cubs struck again in the sixth after Burnett hit Schierholtz. Castillo doubled to right-center field and scored Schierholtz, who was running on the pitch, but the Pirates caught Castillo in a rundown.
Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes and Mark Melancon pitched 3 1/3 hitless, scoreless innings after Burnett exited in the sixth.
Carlos Marmol hit McCutchen with a pitch in the ninth. McCutchen stole second and scored on Alvarez's single, cutting the Cubs lead to 3-1. Marmol walked Sanchez, putting the tying run on first, but James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa got the final two outs of the game.
Samardzija, 28, said he had long admired Burnett, and though Samardzija lacks a curve like Burnett's, he thinks the two pitch in a similar fashion.
"We're big long guys throwing a lot of sinkers," 6-foot-5 Samardzija said. "But I've watched him pitch for a long time, so to go out and pitch against a guy like A.J. was exciting."
The teams played under intermittent sunny skies, but a mix of rain and snow interrupted pregame batting practice. The teams are off today and resume the series Wednesday.
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First Published April 2, 2013 4:00 AM