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March 31, 2014

SHAWN CURTIS | Pirates win has familiar feel

PITTSBURGH — As much as all the fuzzy feelings of the 2013 season came to an end when Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano fired a first-pitch strike to Emilio Bonifacio at 1:14 p.m. on Monday afternoon at PNC Park, the 1-0 win took the shape that many Pittsburgh wins did a season ago.

  • Get a solid start: The Pirates did receive that from Liriano, who held the Cubs off the board over six innings. The 16-game winner from last season struck out 10 while allowing four hits and walking three.
  • Bullpen help: A reliever quartet anchored by Bryan Morris’ scoreless 10th inning limited the Cubs to just three base runners over the final four frames. Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli handles things in the seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively.
  • Late-game magic: Neil Walker’s home run in the 10th won the game for the Pirates and sent a regular-season record crowd of 39,883 spilling into the streets with a springier step.

While it’s just one game, it felt a lot like many of the wins that made 2013 what it was.

Especially when the Pirates bats weren’t producing early.

“That’s what wins the games for us is our pitching,” Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “Those guys have helped us out a lot and they continue to do that. It’s a awesome to be a part of, they’re always going to keep us in the game.”

Liriano’s 10 strikeouts matched a club record for opening day, recorded three times with A.J. Burnett’s performance in last year’s home opener marking the last time that it had happened.

The left-handler battled multiple times to keep the game scoreless with his sixth-inning escape job after a Junior Lake single and a walk issued to Starlin Castro opened the frame.

Strikeouts by Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo sandwiched a popup from Mike Olt, jolting fans awake in what was already a day dominated by pitchers.

“He did battle,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He made his best pitches in the deepest counts, especially the last two innings. He competed very well. The fastball command was less than 50-50 for him, which complicated things, but he has other weapons to help him stay in play and get outs.”

Battling was a theme for Liriano, who allowed the lead-off batter to reach base in four of the six innings he pitched.

“At the end, I felt a little fatigued,” Liriano said. “But I wasn’t trying to do too much. Just make them hit the ball and get some good plays behind me.”

A different kind of battle was won by Melancon and the Pirates in the eighth as a one-out grounder by Castro instigated a rundown sequence to retire Emilio Bonifacio, who broke from third on contact.

The 4-2-5-1-6-5 putout held the Cubs off the board and made life a lot easier for Melancon, who served up the slap double to Bonifacio to open the eighth.

Melancon forced a popup from Rizzo to end the threat.

After Pittsburgh staved off the Cubs in the ninth and 10th innings, Walker deposited a 3-2 pitch from Carlos Villanueva into the seats opinion right field to drop the curtain on the opening-day win.

For the Pittsburgh native, it was a special moment to open the season. Even if he’s able to not focus on his hometown ties.

“I think I’ve become numb to that over the last 11 seasons in this organization,” Walker said. “At the same time, special moments like today and being a part of a pregame like that and having a finish like that is very very special.

“I certainly have a better understanding of the tradition of this organization than most guys.”

With a fanbase that had waited over two decades for special moments to match its eternal optimism, the Pirates opened 2014 in the most 2013 way possible. If the other 161 games follow suit, the club picked a great year to emulate.

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