PITTSBURGH – Edwin Jackson gave the Cubs everything they needed in his first start of the season. He worked five efficient innings in frigid temperatures and kept the Pittsburgh Pirates mostly in check.
The Cubs, however, didn’t provide any support for Jackson in a 3-0 loss Wednesday night.
Jackson gave up two runs and three hits, struck out five and walked one. His only hiccup came in the fourth, when a single by Garrett Jones, a double by Andrew McCutchen and an error by shortstop Starlin Castro gave the Pirates all the cushion starter Wandy Rodriguez needed.
“Just a tough one for us tonight,” Jackson said. “More times than not the situations we had, I like our chances coming through and scoring runs.”
Jackson began the night 4-0 in six career starts against Pittsburgh. He pitched well enough to remain unbeaten and might have tacked on another win against the Pirates if not for Rodriguez.
The 34-year-old left-hander gave up two hits in 62/3 innings and worked out of his only jam in the seventh by striking out Brent Lillibridge on a full-count curveball.
Rodriguez had cruised until seventh, when his command temporarily abandoned him. He drilled Anthony Rizzo in the shoulder, gave up a single to Alfonso Soriano and pelted Welington Castillo in the knee to load the bases with one out.
It led to a 10-pitch duel with Lillibridge, one Rodriguez barely survived. Twice Lillibridge drilled a Rodriguez fastball down the left-field line. One landed inches to the left of the chalk. The other sailed just wide of the foul pole. Rodriguez took advantage of the reprieve, locking up Lillibridge with a 76 mph breaking ball.
“He’s a pro,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s a pro’s pitch. No kid is going to throw that pitch.”
Rodriguez walked off to a rousing ovation and made way for left-hander Tony Watson, who fell behind pinch hitter Alberto Gonzalez 3-0 before battling back with two called strikes then getting out of the jam with a routine fly to center.
“We had two great at-bats,” Chicago manager Dale Sveum said. “Lillibridge had a great at-bat as well as Gonzalez. He took it to 3-2 and put a good swing on it and just missed the ball to center field.”
Jason Grilli, promoted to the closer’s role in the offseason, worked the ninth for his first save.
Rodriguez, acquired in a trade deadline deal with Houston last July, struck out six and walked one in a continuation of his strong spring. Rodriguez helped the Dominican Republic to the World Baseball Classic championship last month, going 1-0 with a 0.96 ERA in two starts. He carried the momentum forward in his first April start for someone other than the Astros.
Expertly mixing his breaking ball with a pinpoint fastball, Rodriguez kept the Cubs off balance all night.
And unlike the opener — when the Pirates couldn’t take advantage of a steady performance by A.J. Burnett — the Pirates gave Rodriguez some help.
Jones led off the fourth with a base hit and scored on an perfectly executed hit-and-run when McCutchen doubled to the left-field corner. McCutchen moved to third on a groundout by Pedro Alvarez then came home when Castro couldn’t come up with a sharply hit grounder by Gaby Sanchez.
Starling Marte gave the Pirates some wiggle room with a single that plated Clint Barmes from second in the seventh.
Watson and Grilli took care of the rest.
The 36-year-old Grilli, closing for the first time in his journeyman career, retired the Cubs in order in the ninth. He struck out Nate Schierholtz looking to end it and celebrated with a fist pump as fireworks exploded behind him.
“My heart was beating a little faster, but controllable,” Grilli said. “Facing the heart of the order, I’ve done that before.”
NOTES: The gametime temperature was 35 degrees. ... Pittsburgh LHP Jeff Locke pitched six innings in an extended spring training game on Tuesday. Locke is Pittsburgh’s fifth starter and will make his season debut on Sunday in Los Angeles. ... Sveum reiterated Carlos Marmol remains the team’s closer. Marmol struggled during Monday’s 3-1 victory and was pulled after giving up a run and two hits while retiring just one batter. ... The series wraps up on Thursday. James McDonald (12-8, 4.21 ERA in 2012) starts for Pittsburgh against Chicago’s Travis Wood (6-13, 4.27). ... McCutchen swiped second in the sixth for his 100th career stolen base.