On April 1, Opening Day finally arrived in Major League Baseball. It was as close to a normal day of baseball as we’ve seen in quite some time. The Pirates were in Chicago to take on a Cubs team which doesn’t seem quite as daunting as it once did. Baseball being the “romantic” sport it is, on Opening Day, I often find myself reminiscing about past Opening Days.
Once I started this train of thought, there was a day which immediately stood out to me, and it was a fitting one, given the opponent: On March 31, 2014, the Pirates opened up the regular season against the Cubs. Instead of taking place at Wrigley Field, however, this game was played at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
Bear in mind, this was the first season after the Pirates had broken their decades long losing streak and playoff drought. In 2013, Pittsburgh got into the postseason as a Wild Card team, upended the Cincinnati Reds in an exciting and memorable matchup, before being narrowly eclipsed by divisional rival St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series.
What all that means is that excitement was in the air for Buccos’ baseball, and rightfully so. As we would come to find out, it would be another successful season, albeit with a quick postseason exit.
For the Pirates, Francisco Liriano started the game, while the Cubs called on former Notre Dame dual-sport athlete Jeff Samardzija. The former gave Pittsburgh six innings, scattering four hits, no runs, three walks, and 10 strikeouts. The latter turned in seven innings, allowing five hits, no runs, walking a pair, and striking out three. Neither pitcher would earn a win that afternoon.
That game saw the appearance of several fan favorites out of that vaunted bullpen of the time, including Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, and Jason Grilli. None of those three would give up much, and only Melancon allowed a baserunner to get aboard. The final man out of the ‘pen, Bryan Morris, would earn the win after pitching a scoreless top half of the 10th inning.
Those days also included the likes of Starling Marte (1-for-3, double), Andrew McCutchen (1-for-3), Pedro Alvarez (0-for-4), and Russell Martin (1-for-4). But there was another player who would end up making the day memorable and capping off the afternoon with a Pirates’ win, Neil Walker, the Pittsburgh kid.
In the bottom of the 10th inning, the Cubs called on Carlos Villanueva out of the bullpen to try and send the game to the 11th inning. Walker was the first batter he’d face — he was also the last. Walker worked a 3-2 count before getting a pitch he could handle, turning on it and sending the ball into the right field stands, securing a 1-0 Pirates’ win on Opening Day.
That team would finish the season 88-74 and earn a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they ran into the postseason buzzsaw that was Madison Bumgarner at that time, promptly ending the Pirates’ season.
In case you were wondering, Pittsburgh owned Chicago that season, going 14-5 against the Cubs. The Pirates finished second in the division, despite holding losing records to the other three Central opponents. Finally, the Pirates’ success that season came mostly at home, holding a 51-30 record at PNC Park versus a 37-44 record everywhere else. But they finished the season with a strong 17-9 record in September to secure a playoff spot.
The next season would be even better for the Pirates, going 98-64 and showing themselves to be one of the top teams in the league. But because the Cardinals won 100 games, Pittsburgh was destined for a Wild Card spot once again, where they ran into another buzzsaw, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs.
The Pirates have experienced one winning season since 2015, coming in 2017, when the team went 82-79 in Clint Hurdle’s penultimate season. Although it’s unlikely the Pirates will have a winning season in 2021, the club got the campaign off on the right foot with a 5-3 win over the Cubs on Opening Day. 1-0!