PITTSBURGH | Jeff Samardzija began the season as the Cubs' No. 1 starter practically by default thanks to injuries to veterans Matt Garza and Scott Baker.
Don't expect the quickly improving Samardzija to give up the spot anytime soon.
The lanky right-hander allowed just two hits and struck out nine over eight nearly flawless innings as the Cubs held off the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-1 on Monday for their first opening day victory in four years.
"He stuck to his game plan," Chicago manager Dale Sveum said. "That was probably as good of a game that he's pitched in his starting career."
Samardzija's only real issue came in the first, when a walk and an error put two runners on with nobody out. A fielder's choice and two strikeouts later Samardzija, a Valpo High grad, was out of the jam. At one point he retired 14 straight batters, almost all of them on strikeouts or routine groundballs.
"When they're making plays behind you it gives you the confidence to really kind of make stuff up out there, keep the ball down in the zone and you know they're going to make some plays for me like they did all day for me," Samardzija said.
And the Pirates were only too happy to oblige Samardzija as he worked both sides of the plate and kept the Pirates off-balance with a two-seam fastball clocked in the mid-90s and a changeup that didn't break 80.
Pittsburgh only managed two balls out of the infield while Samardzija was on the hill as he improved to 4-0 in his short career against the Pirates.
"The last two times we've seen him, he's been a beast out there," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "He had command of everything out of his hand."
Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer in the first and Wellington Castillo added an RBI double for the Cubs. Kyuji Fujikawa got the final out to earn a save in his major league debut after closer Carlos Marmol struggled.
A.J. Burnett, making the first opening day start of his lengthy career, gave up three runs on six hits in 5 2-3 innings, striking out 10. Pittsburgh however began a season of high expectations with a thud.
Burnett said it was an honor to get the call in the opener, but the 15-year veteran showed some nerves early. Castro singled with one out and Rizzo followed with a towering two-run shot to center field that landed on the concourse behind the seats for one of the longest homers in the park's 13-year history.
The ball left the park so fast even center fielder Andrew McCutchen — a Gold Glove winner last year — trotted only couple of steps before stopping.
Rizzo hit just .229 in spring training with just three extra base hits, but his blast gave the rebuilding Cubs an early shot of adrenaline.
"I don't really remember the pitch or where I hit it or whatever," Rizzo said. "It was just kind of blacked out there for a second but it was nice to get the win and get on a good note."
Chicago threatened to expand the lead in the fourth, putting runners in scoring position with no outs. Two strikeouts and a harmless chopper to third ended the threat, but the Pirates could muster little fight against Samardzija.
It continued a troubling trend at home for the Pirates when Burnett takes the mound. Pittsburgh failed to score a single run in Burnett's final three starts at PNC Park in 2012, part of a miserable collapse that sent the ballclub to its 20th straight losing season.
Burnett couldn't even catch a break while attempting to keep his pitching hand dry. The rosin bag literally exploded while he was tapping it against his hip during the top of the fifth, showering the back of the pitcher's mound and Burnett's leg with dust.
"The pitch to Rizzo and the rosin bag, that was my day," Burnett said.
Pittsburgh's offense was just as faulty against Samardzija.
Still, the Cubs nearly gave it away in the ninth when Marmol came in to wrap things up. It didn't happen. He hit McCutchen with one out and McCutchen promptly stole second then scored on Pedro Alvarez's single up the middle. Gaby Sanchez followed with a walk, ending Marmol's afternoon.
He couldn't blame Sveum.
"If you're struggling to get people out, that's what you have to do," Marmol said.
James Russell entered and managed to get Neil Walker to line out to right before Fujikawa, who had 219 saves in the Japanese League before arriving in Chicago in the offseason, forced Russell Martin to pop to center to end it.
"I was thinking about making something special happen," said Martin, who was making his Pittsburgh debut after coming over in the offseason from the New York Yankees. "I just didn't get it done."
Sveum insisted Marmol's job is not up for grabs, at least at the moment.
"Not making any changes or anything like that," Sveum said. "He just didn't have it today."