PITTSBURGH – Carlos Marmol remains the closer for the Cubs until further notice.
At the rate the volatile right-hander is going, further notice might arrive before the end of the weekend.
The Cubs rode six strong innings from Travis Wood to edge the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2, on Thursday, a victory Marmol nearly gave away.
Looking to bounce back from a shaky performance on Opening Day – when he was pulled after retiring only one of the three batters he faced – Marmol again made it interesting in the ninth.
Nate Schierholtz gave the Cubs a healthy cushion with a two-run homer in the top of ninth against Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes. The Cubs ended up needing every last inch of it.
Starling Marte singled and Russell Martin walked to Pittsburgh’s start final at-bat. Andrew McCutchen and Gaby Sanchez followed with consecutive run-scoring singles. Still, Cubs manager Dale Sveum stuck with Marmol and he responded by whiffing Pedro Alvarez on three pitches then getting Neil Walker to ground sharply to second base, allowing the Cubs to turn the double play.
“It does feel good, when you’ve been struggling and give up a base hit and walk people, to strike out one guy and get a groundball, it feels great,” Marmol said.
Sveum insists Marmol will continue to get the ball in the ninth, pointing out Marmol wasn’t exactly steady last year while picking up 20 saves.
“For the most part, we know things like that can get interesting with him,” Sveum said. “But he got out of it again.”
The high-wire act allowed the Cubs to take an opening series for the first time in four years, an important step for a team looking to catch up to the rest of the NL Central.
“Could have been 0-3 really, but it was nice,” Sveum said. “We won both ballgames we were ahead in.”
The Cubs were ahead thanks in large part to Wood, an X-factor for a team trying to make inroads on the rest of the NL Central.
The left-hander struck out four and walked two. He also scored the game’s first run, racing home on Starlin Castro’s single in the third inning.
“I had good fastball command, I was able to locate it both sides and keep them off-balance,” Wood said.
The loss spoiled a stellar season debut for Pittsburgh starter James McDonald. The right-hander gave up only two hits in seven innings, striking out four and walking two.
McDonald’s start provided a welcome return to form for the enigmatic 28-year-old, who nearly made the All-Star team last season before stumbling during a bumpy second half. He went just 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA after the July break as the efficiency that led to his breakout first half vanished.
There were no such problems on a chilly 45-degree afternoon. His only hiccup came in the third. Wood singled with one out, moved to second on a groundball then scored on Castro’s single to center field.
“He went out and he pitched a gem,” McCutchen said. “You hate for guys to go out like that, go seven strong innings and get the loss, but hopefully he can continue to do that and the bats will come around.”
The hit marked the first by the Cubs with a runner in scoring position this season, ending a 0-for-13 start.
After Marmol survived a hectic ninth, Wood improved to 4-1 in his career at PNC Park.
The Pirates simply couldn’t get going. Clint Barmes was stranded at second in the third inning after a one-out double off Wood, the only base hit Wood allowed all day. He retired 10 straight at one point to give the Cubs an early boost, handcuffing Pittsburgh all afternoon.
The Cubs didn’t run into trouble until after Wood gave way to Shawn Camp in the seventh. McCutchen reached on an error then stole second and third.
Reliever James Russell, however, struck out Neil Walker looking and the Pirates wasted a golden opportunity in the ninth as the Cubs improved to 2-1 for the first time since taking two of three from Houston to open the 2009 season.
“It’s nice to start on the road to win two of three against a good team and three good starting pitchers,” Sveum said. “That’s a good start.”
NOTES: Pirates RHP Charlie Morton threw 28 pitches during a simulated spring training game at the team’s complex in Bradenton, Fla., on Wednesday without issue. Morton is coming off Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is out until at least late May. ... Sveum says he’s in no hurry to see the National League adopt the designated hitter. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein said recently he could see the NL adopting it at some point. ... The Cubs play in Atlanta on Friday. Scott Feldman will start for Chicago against Mike Minor. ... The Pirates begin a six-game road trip in Los Angeles on Friday. Jonathan Sanchez will face Zack Greinke.