Ron Cook: Credit the pitchers for victory in season opener



You want to know why the Pirates were able to beat the Chicago Cubs Monday on a glorious opening day at PNC Park?

“Ten scoreless innings, right?” reliever Mark Melancon guessed.

Bingo.

Sure, Neil Walker’s home run leading off the 10th was huge for three reasons. One, it gave the Pirates a 1-0 win, their first extra-inning win in an opener in 49 years. Two, it was Walker’s first game-ending hit of any kind, an amazing statistic considering he has 2,012 at-bats in the big leagues. And three, it was Walker’s first hit, period, in a long, long time. The good news for his teammates and Pirates fans is he wasn’t thinking about the 0-for-3 start to his day or his 0-for-19 miseries against the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs last fall. He went up hacking against reliever Carlos Villanueva. The result was a thing of a beauty.

“The hometown kid hitting a home run to end it? I can’t think of a better story,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said.

I can.

How about that Pirates pitching?

The game never gets to Walker in the 10th without those 10 zeroes. Francisco Liriano put up the first six, striking out 10 Cubs. “He was fantastic today, real aggressive,” Martin said.

The Pirates bullpen showed why it has a chance to be baseball’s best, getting a scoreless inning each from Tony Watson, Melancon, Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris. “The Shark Tank doesn’t get nearly enough attention,” Martin said.

A baseball truism:

You don’t give up a run, you’re eventually going to win, right?

A second baseball truism:

Your team will be only as good as its pitching. So it is with these Pirates, who, before Walker’s home run, looked offensively challenged, as they were much of last season.

And, finally, one more:

When you pitch good and field good, you’re going to look good, regardless of what your bats do. So it was with the Pirates in front of the biggest regular-season crowd in PNC Park history. They looked great.

“[Manager Clint Hurdle] always says the key is to score one more run than they do,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, beaming.

“Those guys are holding me to my word,” Hurdle said.

The Pirates were 18-9 in one-run games at PNC Park last season.

Now, they are 1-0 in 2014.

It all started with Liriano, as it did much of last season. He owns the opposition at PNC Park. A year ago, he was 8-1 with a 1.47 earned run average in 11 starts in the magnificent ballpark. Monday, it wasn’t just those 10 strikeouts. He allowed only four hits. He also was superb defensively, picking off the Cubs’ Emilio Bonifacio in the first inning — first basemen Travis Ishikawa dropped the ball for an error — and wiggling out of first-and-second, no-out trouble in the fifth by turning a bunt by Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija into a 1-5-3 double play.

Liriano was virtually speechless when asked about his PNC Park success, probably because he doesn’t want to jinx it. But he did allow, “I’m having a great time here. This feels like home.”

Martin and Hurdle had no trouble explaining why Liriano has been so good since he joined the Pirates before last season, not just here but in every ballpark.

“He has the ability to make any of his pitches at any time,” Martin said.

“He has the ability to make his pitches look like a strike coming out of his hand,” Hurdle said. “Then, the ball dives, one way when he throws his changeup, the other way when he throws his slider. That’s impressive.”

The only thing that got to Liriano Monday was a “little fatigue.” He said he had no worries turning the ball over to the bullpen after his 104-pitch day. And why not? That bullpen was the best part of the 2013 Pirates and should be their strongest part in 2014.

No club has two left-handed relievers of the quality of Watson and Justin Wilson. No team has such bullpen depth. The Pirates are so stacked they had to release Vin Mazzaro Sunday. “That was tough,” Hurdle said. “All he did was take the ball 57 times last season and pitch great for us.”

The Pirates bullpen shortens the game. If the team is leading after seven innings, the feeling is it’s going to win.

“I feel that way after five innings,” Martin said. “We can cover the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings with power arms, guys who are going to be closers at some point. Those guys give a manager so many matchups that it’s hard to go wrong. I’m sure Clint enjoys that.”

Loves it, actually.

Wouldn’t you?

Martin promised the offense will pick up. “There’s some danger in that lineup.” It’s easy to be skeptical, especially with potential weaknesses at first base and right field. But it’s a lot harder to be cynical of the pitching staff, of the starters if Liriano keeps rolling, of the bullpen, certainly.

“We’re going to keep grinding,” Martin said. “We hope to have a tremendous amount of fun this season.”

So far, so good.

Thanks to Walker, sure.

But special thanks to that wonderful pitching.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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