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Pirates' offense struggles in Opening Day loss to Cubs

| Monday, April 1, 2013, 3:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez strikes out swinging with runners on the corners during the first inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Garrett Jones strikes out swinging during the ninth inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett walks back to the mound after giving up a two-run home run to the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo during the first inning Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers the first pitch of the 2013 season during the first inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija delivers against the Cubs during the eighth inning Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Russell Martin drops his bat while flying out to end the game during the ninth inning against the Cubs Monday, April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes dives but can't reach a single hit by the Cubs' Starlin Castro on Monday, April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers during the first inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo celebrates his two-run home run with Starlin Castro during the first inning against the Pirates Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett reacts after getting out of a jam against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen doubles during the sixth inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett wipes rosin dust from his arm after the bag burst on the mound during the fifth inning against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Garrett Jones breaks up a double play under the Cubs' Brent Lillibridge during the first inning Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Cubs' Nate Schierholtz scores past Pirates catcher Russell Martin Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates players bow their heads in a moment of silence to remeber the Sandy Hook tragedy during a ceremony before the home opener against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates Chairman of the Board Bob Nutting talks with wounded warrior Marine Corps Corporal Brandon Rumbaugh of Uniontown before the home opener against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates fans cheer as Andrew McCutchen is introduced during Opening Day on Monday, April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle steps from the dugout during pre-game introductions before the home opener against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle pieced together a new-look Opening Day lineup, hoping to give slugger Andrew McCutchen more chances to drive in runs.

It only works if somebody — anybody — gets on base.

The plan collapsed Monday in a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs. On a sun-splashed but chilly afternoon at PNC Park, the Pirates managed only three hits and struck out 10 times.

Garrett Jones batted second, a spot he filled just once last season and 33 times in his career. Neil Walker dropped to No. 6, one slot ahead of Russell Martin. Pedro Alvarez hit cleanup.

Those four batters went a combined 2 for 16, including three strikeouts. Alvarez had the only RBI hit, a ninth-inning single that scored McCutchen.

Before the game, Hurdle admitted his strategy would draw skeptics.

“This lineup officially opens the season for second-guessing,” Hurdle said.

Hurdle's decisions may be open to debate, but the players' execution is what lost the game. The Pirates hit only two balls out of the infield in eight innings (28 plate appearances) against Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija.

“You need all of (your pitches) working when you're playing a team like Pittsburgh, with the lineup they have and how dynamic it is,” Samardzija said. “If you let a guy or two on, they've got speed and they can take advantage of you. I was just trying to keep them off the bags.”

The Pirates wasted a solid effort by starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. The right-hander worked 5 23 innings and racked up 10 strikeouts, matching the franchise record for Opening Day games.

John Candelaria fanned 10 on April 5, 1983, against the Cardinals. Bob Veale did it April 12, 1965, against the Giants. The Pirates won both of those openers.

“As a starter, you want to try to set the tone,” said Burnett, who gave up Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer in the first inning. “You try to throw up zeroes, hoping the offense clicks. But you have to tip your hat to the other guy sometimes, too, and (Samardzija) was throwing the heck out of it today.”

The Pirates have scored a total of one run in Burnett's past four starts at PNC Park, dating to Aug. 27, 2012.

Hurdle insists he's not a full-blown stats wonk. But his eyes lit up when he saw Jones' career .852 on-base plus slugging percentage against right-handed pitchers. The big stick Jones can swing is nice, but what Hurdle craves are men on base ahead of No. 3 hitter McCutchen.

“When you construct a lineup, there are protection issues and skill sets you want to match up — how can you best protect certain players, strengthen your lineup, stretch it out from top to bottom,” Hurdle said. “It's either second or sixth for Jones. It's hard for me to hit a guy with an (.852) OPS against right-handers sixth.”

Walker, whose career OPS against right-handers is .795, said he doesn't mind batting sixth.

“I can be a little more aggressive,” Walker said. “If I'm hitting in the six hole, that's a pretty good sign for this lineup. I like the way our lineup stacks up.”

Walker's RBI ability makes him a good choice at either No. 2 or 6. Hurdle said putting the switch-hitting Walker sixth creates more options to counter-punch against left-handed relievers.

That's what happened in the ninth, when the Pirates, trailing by two runs, had runners on first and second and one out. Carlos Marmol gave way to left-hander James Russell, who retired Walker on a hard-hit liner to right field.

Right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa replaced Russell and got Martin on a popup to end it.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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