Pirates' offense struggles in Opening Day loss to Cubs

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, April 1, 2013, 3:00 p.m.

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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