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Walker walk-off homer gives Pirates Opening Day victory over Cubs

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 4:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker leaps in the air after hitting a walk-off homer during the 10th inning against the Cubs on Monday, March 31, 2014, at PNC Park.

The last time the Pirates opened a season after a playoff appearance, they moved forward without a National League MVP and a staff ace as Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek departed for bigger dollars in bigger markets. Twenty consecutive losing seasons followed.

The 2014 Pirates have greater expectations and return keystones in reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen, ace Francisco Liriano, and Opening Day star Neil Walker.

More than anyone in the clubhouse it is Walker, the Pine-Richland High grad, who understands where the Pirates have been and how important it is they do not return there this summer. Walker launched a Carlos Villanueva changeup over the Clemente Wall in the 10th inning Monday for his first career walk-off hit, and Liriano and the bullpen picked up where they left off in leading the Pirates to a 1-0 victory over the Cubs.

The home run was Walker's first walk-off hit since he was in Triple-A. It also was the second walk-off homer in a 1-0 Opening Day victory in major league history. The Pirates' Bob Bailey hit the other one April 12, 1965, off the Giants' Juan Marichal.

“This one feels pretty special. This was a special day for this team and this organization. We've come a long way,” Walker said. “The last 20 years have been a tough thing. To get to where we are now it is pretty amazing. … The excitement in the ballpark, the pregame ceremonies, Frankie going out there and pitching a great game, it kind of felt like a rollover from last year.”

Liriano pitched like he was rolling over his 2013. He became the fourth Pirate to strike out 10 in an Opening Day start, tying a club record. Liriano's off-speed pitches were dominant as nine of his 10 strikeouts came via slider or changeup.

Anthony Rizzo faced Liriano three times and struck out three times, swinging over the top of hard-biting sliders on each occasion. Mike Olt saw three straight changeups in the fourth and swung and missed three consecutive times.

Perhaps the only critiques of Liriano were his fastball command — only 10 of 24 first-pitches were strikes — and often he used his off-speed pitches. After throwing fastballs 41 percent of the time last year, Liriano vowed to be more fastball focused this spring. But on Monday, only 45 of Liriano's 104 pitches were fastballs.

“I'm trying to go deeper into games. That's why I want to throw more fastballs. I'm still working on it,” Liriano said. “Every time I go out there, I want to compete with whatever is working that day.”

Liriano's first trouble did not come until the fifth when Nate Schierholtz singled and Darwin Barney walked. Jeff Samardzija attempted a sacrifice bunt, but Liriano got the lead runner to start a rare 1-5-4 double play. Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged the play, contending that Samardzija was safe at first. The call was upheld. It was the first regular-season play to be challenged in major league history.

In the 10th inning, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made his first challenge. He won as an on-the-field call was reversed. One the play, the Cubs' Emilio Bonifacio was ruled to have been picked off by a Bryan Morris throw.

While Liriano was dominant, so was Samardzija.

A year after dominating the Pirates in a Cubs' Opening Day win, the hard-throwing right-hander shut out the Pirates over seven innings.

While Liriano and Samardzija matched scoreless frames, the Pirates bullpen was superior. Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli — who topped out at 95 mph — and Morris combined for four shutout innings, a familiar formula from a year ago.

“We won a lot of one-run games last year,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “We're kind of picking up where we left off.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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