Pirates looking for repeat after breakthrough year

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PITTSBURGH - Neil Walker homered off Carlos Villanueva leading off the 10th inning Monday, and the Pittsburgh Pirates benefited from an overturned to call to beat the Chicago Cubs 1-0 on opening day Monday.

Walker's first career game-ending homer easily cleared the Clemente Wall while his teammates rushed onto the field in celebration. It was the first opening-day walkoff homer for the Pirates since Bob Bailey's off San Francisco's Juan Marichal in a 1-0 victory in 1965.

Reliever Bryan Morris (1-0) won with the help of an overturned pickoff call in the top of the 10th under Major League Baseball's new replay system. Starter Francisco Liriano and four relievers combined for 11 strikeouts.

Emilio Bonifacio went 4 for 5 for Chicago, but the Cubs were 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position and wasted a fine start by Jeff Samardzija, who scattered five hits over seven innings. (Click here for the game's box score.)

Travis Ishikawa had two of the six hits by Pittsburgh, which began 2014 much the same way the Pirates spent a long stretch of their breakout 2013: by riding solid pitching and a lights out bullpen to victory.

Liriano resurrected his career last season, winning 16 games despite not making his first start until May and putting together a pair of solid postseason outings. He had a dominant performance in a wild card win over Cincinnati that marked Pittsburgh's first playoff victory in 21 years.

Vaulted to opening-day starter after the offseason departure of A.J. Burnett, Liriano looked comfortable as an ace and didn't panic when he got into trouble. He worked out of a two-on, no-out jam in the fifth thanks in part to a double play upheld on video review that served as the debut of MLB's expanded replay. Facing the same situation in the sixth, he kept the Cubs scoreless behind a pair of strikeouts and an infield fly.

Samardzija proved every bit Liriano's equal, striking out three and walking two before giving way to a bullpen that had little trouble until Walker stepped in leading off the bottom of the 10th.

On a day the Pirates made overtures to their history — welcoming back former star Barry Bonds for the first time in a team function his he left for San Francisco after the 1992 season — the club was also a part of history.

Chicago manager Rick Renteria made the first official appeal under MLB's expanded replay system in the fifth, asking for another look at a double play after Samardzija was called out at first by umpire Bob Davidson. The call was confirmed in MLB's New York replay room by umpire Larry Vanover during a 2-minute delay.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle asked for a review in the 10th after Davidson ruled Bonifacio safe on a pickoff attempt by Morris. The call was overturned after a 2:30 delay.

NOTES: Though the left-handed Ishikawa started in the opener, Hurdle reiterated Gaby Sanchez will get the majority playing time at the position and the manager does not see the left-handed Ishikawa and the right-handed Sanchez working on a straight platoon rotation. ... Pirates C Chris Stewart took batting practice and says he is coming along ahead of schedule in his rehab from knee surgery. Stewart believe he can beat the timetable of late April for his return. ... Chicago OF Brian Bogusevic was unavailable because of ankle soreness. He is expected to be ready to play Wednesday. ... The teams are off Tuesday. Chicago's Edwin Jackson faces Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton on Wednesday night.


Five keys that will determine whether Pittsburgh's rise continues or levels off.

REPLACING A.J.: Veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett played a pivotal role in helping the Pirates make the mental transformation from hapless losers to contenders. He's gone after signing with Philadelphia for the kind of money Pittsburgh's office didn't want to offer a 37-year-old.

Though the Pirates might miss his presence, there's a chance they can match his production. Gerrit Cole was spectacular at times as a rookie, getting better as the season wore on. He went 5-0 in September and hardly looked like a 23-year-old during his two postseason starts, including five effective innings in Game 5 of the division series loss to St. Louis. Though Francisco Liriano, who resurrected his career last season by going 16-8, is the present ace, Cole is very much the future.

CUTCH'S CLIMB: Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen knows how to deflect attention. Weeks after becoming the first Pirates player to win the NL MVP Award since Barry Bonds in 1992, McCutchen changed the conversation by proposing to his girlfriend while making an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

"I knew that after I proposed to her, people would totally forget about the MVP award," McCutchen said. "That's as it should be."

The proposal also allowed McCutchen to slip quietly into the offseason, which he spent trying to shore up the few holes remaining in his game a year after hitting .317 with 21 home runs, 84 RBIs and 27 stolen bases while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.

"Andrew usually comes with a couple focus points," Hurdle said. "His game continues to get better and more consistent. He sets the bar pretty high for himself."

WHO'S ON FIRST?: Pittsburgh decided to keep its wallet closed during free agency, leaving Gaby Sanchez and prospect Andrew Lambo to battle it out at first base. Lambo was sent to the minors and that leaves Sanchez, who has struggled to find consistent playing time since joining the Pirates in 2012. His goal is to make sure Hurdle doesn't feel the need for any platoon, though the bigger danger is general manager Neal Huntington going shopping if he gets off to a slow start.

RECLAMATION PROJECT: Pitching coach Ray Searage helped Liriano regain the form he flashed before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006. The Pirates are hoping Searage can work the same kind of magic on journeyman Edinson Volquez.

An All-Star in 2008, Volquez hasn't been nearly the same pitcher since having his own elbow reconstruction surgery in 2009. He went a combined 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA for San Diego and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 before signing a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. Though he hasn't been crisp during the spring, Volquez will be the fifth starter when the team breaks camp. How long he keeps that role is entirely up to him.

REINFORCEMENTS: Last summer, Cole's arrival provided the already humming Pirates with a jolt that helped carry them to the playoffs. Right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon appeared to be on the same kind of track before being shut down for two weeks in late March with elbow soreness. The move is considered precautionary, though it could push back whatever timetable the team had in mind for the former first-round pick.

It now seems more likely 22-year-old right fielder Gregor Polanco will arrive at PNC Park before Taillon, particularly if Travis Snider or Jose Tabata run into early trouble.


OFFSEASON HEADLINES:

March 30, 2014 - Cubs, Pirates ready to start anew

March 28, 2014 - Walker, Morton lead Pirates over Phillies 3-0

March 28, 2014 - Bonds, Leyland to attend Pirates opening day

March 26, 2014 - Pirates, Marte agree to 6-year extension

March 26, 2014 - Gerrit Cole looking to avoid sophomore slump

March 25, 2014 - Pirates acquire RHP Vance Worley from Twins

March 25, 2014 - Pirates get 29 hits, trounce Blue Jays 22-5

March 21, 2104 - Phil Irwin, Chase d’Arnaud among Pirates cuts

March 18, 2104 - Right field still question mark for Pirates

March 16, 2014 - McCutchen buzzed by Papelbon, Bucs-Phils get testy

March 14, 2014 - Pirates option stud prospect OF Polanco to Triple-A

March 12, 2014 - Pedro Alvarez homers as Pirates beat Twins

March 8, 2014 - Martin homers, Liriano sharp as Pirates beat Rays

March 7, 2014 - McCutchen gets HR, 3 hits, Pirates lose to Twins

March 4, 2014 - Morton impressive as Pirates beat Tigers 5-2

March 3, 2014 - Alvarez, Martin homer as Pirates beat Red Sox 7-6

March 2, 2014 - A.J. Burnett starts vs former team, Pirates beat Phils

Feb. 25, 2014 - Pirates hope Gaby Sanchez is answer at 1B

Feb. 24, 2014 - Pirates claim INF Morel off waivers from Blue Jays

Feb. 18, 2014 - Hurdle names Liriano Opening Day starter

Feb. 12, 2014 - A.J. Burnett staying in Pa., signs with Phillies

Feb. 7, 2014 - Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner dies at 91

Jan. 17, 2014 - Walker, Alvarez agree to deals, avoid arbitration

Jan. 10, 2014 - Famed Three Rivers grounds man, Pittsburgh sport fanatic ‘Dirt’ DiNardo dies

Dec. 26, 2013 - Pirates' turnaround headlines Pa. year in sports

Dec. 14, 2013 - Thousands attend PirateFest in Pittsburgh

Dec. 11, 2013 - Pittsburgh Pirates help food bank with preparation of grab ‘n go bags

Dec. 11, 2013 - McCutchen talks proposal, marriage, kids

Dec. 3, 2013 - Pirates’ minor league prospect, 24, suddenly dies

Dec. 2, 2013 - Pirates acquire catcher from Yankees, designate McKenry for assignment

Nov. 26, 2013 - Pirates designate Garrett Jones for assignment after prospects trade

Nov. 14, 2013 - Andrew McCutchen named National League MVP

Nov. 12, 2013 - Clint Hurdle wins NL Manager of the Year

Nov. 12, 2013 - AP Source: Marlon Byrd close to deal with Phillies

Nov. 7, 2013 - McCutchen meets fans at Habitat for Humanity benefit

Oct. 25, 2013 - McCutchen, Martin, Marte nominated for NL Gold Gloves

Oct. 22, 2013 - Clint Hurdle named Manager of the Year, Liriano takes Comeback