Neil Walker knew the ball wasn't carrying well Monday at PNC Park. He watched two well-struck balls off the bat of Starling Marte fall harmlessly into an outfielder's glove. With two outs in the ninth and a man on, Walker saw Russell Martin rope a ball to left field that was caught short of the wall.
Walker's left-handed swing, the stronger for the switch-hitting second baseman, also has provided him with several home runs that barely cleared the Clemente Wall in right He knows what it takes to put one out.
So, when Walker hit a walk-off homer in the 10th Monday to give the Pirates a 1-0, opening-day victory against the Chicago Cubs, he knew immediately.
Pirates fans, Pedro Alvarez excited about Opening Day
Pirates fans weigh in about their excitement for the start of a new season. Pedro Alvarez does likewise. (video by Andrew Rush; 3/31/2014)
Neil Walker discusses walk-off win
The Pirates' Neil Walker discusess his walk-off home run to defeat the Cubs in the 10th inning in his team's season opener Monday. (Video by Matt Freed; 3/31/2014)
"I've hit enough first-row homers over the Clemente Wall to kind of know that that ball was going to be gone," he said.
Walker hit a 3-2 changeup from Cubs reliever Carlos Villanueva that crossed the middle of the plate just above Walker's belt. Walker dropped his bat after contact and threw both hands in the air, knowing he had just ended the game.
"Villanueva's a guy that will throw any pitch in any count," Walker said. "He works kind of backward. I was just trying to battle, trying to do anything I could to get on first base. He left that changeup up in the zone, and I was able to barrel it over the wall."
The homer was Walker's first walk-off hit in the major leagues. He hadn't ended the game in such fashion since his days with Class AAA Indianapolis.
"I'm glad he knocked it off the list," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Today was a good day to do that."
The walk-off win was the Pirates' first on opening day since April 12, 1965, when Bob Bailey homered off San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal in the bottom of the 10th in a 1-0 win at Forbes Field.
"This one feels pretty special," Walker said. "This was a special day. This was a really special day for this team, this organization. We've come a long way. The last 20 years have been a tough thing and to get to where we are now over the last couple of years is pretty amazing."
The home run came after nine scoreless regulation innings, thanks in part to the strong outings from Francisco Liriano and the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija pitched seven scoreless innings and allowed five hits. Only two Pirates reached scoring position against Samardzija, and neither one advanced to third base.
"We know what we're going to get with him," Walker said. "When he's throwing strikes and he's down in the zone, he's tough to hit, and that was the case today."
The Pirates got what they hoped for from Liriano, who completed six scoreless innings. He allowed four hits, walked three and struck out 10, which tied the Pirates' opening-day record.
Liriano worked cleanly through the first four innings despite a shaky fastball. In the fifth and sixth, he put the first two runners on, but ended the threats by switching to off-speed pitches.
"Throughout the game, it proved to be a much better equalizer than the fastballs," Hurdle said of Liriano's slider and changeup.
The Cubs threatened in the fifth. Nate Schierholtz led off with a single and Darwin Barney walked on four pitches. Samardzija tried to bunt the runners over, but bunted right back to Liriano. Liriano threw to Pedro Alvarez for the force at third, and Alvarez had enough time to throw out Samardzija at first for a double play.
The play withstood a challenge by Cubs manager Rick Renteria.
Liriano allowed the Cubs to start the sixth the same way with a single by Junior Lake and a walk to Starlin Castro. Liriano struck out Anthony Rizzo for the third time, forced Mike Olt to pop out and struck out Welington Castillo to end the inning.
The Pirates didn't put a man in scoring position until the fifth, when Travis Ishikawa singled and advanced on a ground ball. Ishikawa went 2 for 3.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published March 31, 2014 4:40 PM