video thumbnail

PIT@CHC: Walker puts Pirates on top in a grand way

CHICAGO -- Neil Walker needs no lesson in Pirates history. The Pittsburgh native has as keen an understanding of the ballclub's past as anyone who currently wears the black and gold.

And that history that Walker knows so well -- he's now forever entrenched in it.

Walker lifted the Pirates to a 6-3 Opening Day victory over the Cubs on Friday with a swing that put the second baseman in unique company with Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. And how fitting it is that a grand slam now links a 25-year-old kid whom the city of Pittsburgh prides as its own with an outfielder who once similarly captured the city's heart.

"That's obviously a tremendous honor," Walker said, once informed that he is only the second player in franchise history, joining Clemente, with an Opening Day grand slam. "I feel very fortunate. This is a great group of guys in here. We would be real fortunate if we can have similar careers to guys back in that era."

No one is branding this bunch the Lumber Company, but the Pirates did provide proof on Friday of possessing offensive pop that was largely elusive last season. Homers by Walker and Andrew McCutchen, who line up No. 2 and 3 in the order, accounted for all six of Pittsburgh's runs.

Five of the team's seven hits were extra-base knocks.

"That's what we're capable of doing," said McCutchen, who reached base three times. "It's important to have a great start because we want to be able to have that feeling that we can do this."

The victory marked the fifth straight Opening Day win for the club, which hasn't had a longer streak since winning six in a row beginning in 1935.

Walker's grand slam highlighted the afternoon, instantaneously silenced a Wrigley Field crowd of 41,358 that was enjoying a 2-0 Chicago lead and provided a spark that lingered through the ninth, when closer Joel Hanrahan began freezing batters with 98-mph offerings.

"We were definitely jumping up for joy," third baseman Pedro Alvarez said. "The whole game we were up on our feet. That was the kind of energy we need all year round."

The hit capped a fifth inning that drew plenty of praise from Clint Hurdle, who was making his Pirates managerial debut. Ryan Doumit singled off Cubs starter Ryan Dempster to begin the inning. Ronny Cedeno then worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a one-out walk.

Starter Kevin Correia executed a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position, and Jose Tabata patiently accepted the second walk of the frame.

"Many times you'll see younger players get outside the strike zone or expand because they want to be the guy ," Hurdle said. "If the pitcher gives you a chance to be the guy, then you be the guy. But if he doesn't, put the bat down, get down the line and let the next guy be the guy."

That guy would, indeed, be Walker, who worked the count full against Dempster and fouled off a two-strike pitch to extend the at-bat further.

"I knew it was the first time [Dempster] had been in trouble in the game," said Walker, who was 15-for-32 against the Cubs last year. "I didn't want to try and do too much."

The next pitch he saw was a 92-mph fastball that the right-hander left up and Walker hit out. Launched into the right-field seats, the grand slam took little time to bounce onto Sheffield Avenue and give the Pirates a two-run lead.

The grand slam was the first of Walker's career.

"It was a big league at-bat at the right time," Hurdle said. "It was a big swing of the bat for us."

McCutchen's blast came two innings later and padded a lead that the bullpen ensured would stand. His home run, too, came with two out.

"The kid Walker, nice player," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "McCutchen is who he is. We come out and get after them and we have to figure out how to get them out better."

Not to be left in the shadows of a pair of homers was the strong six-inning start Correia provided in his Pirates debut.

After giving up two early runs -- one unearned due to a throwing error by Alvarez -- Correia hardly wavered. He allowed just two singles after the third, the latter of which was Darwin Barney's seventh-inning popup that dropped in front of home plate because of some miscommunication. Barney turned out to be the only hitter Correia faced in the frame, but there was little not to like in Correia's 92-pitch effort.

"At no point did I think that [being down 2-0] was going to be enough to beat us," said Correia, who was making his first Opening Day start. "Sure enough, we had some good at-bats. Having guys that you know have that ability, it puts a lot of pressure on them, and it gives a lot of confidence to go out there and keep on putting up zeroes."

Garrett Olson and Jose Veras wiggled out of more trouble in the seventh, before Evan Meek tossed a scoreless eighth. Hanrahan, who struggled for much of the spring, worked around a walk and an infield hit to notch the save and give the Pirates their 13th win in the team's last 18 games against Chicago.

"To get that first win under your belt in the first game is huge," Correia said. "You don't want to come out and lose the first one, lose the second one and all of a sudden you're pressing. We're looking to win some series on the road this year -- something that they weren't able to do last year. Winning the first game is huge when you're trying to win a series."

MLB.com Comments