National League Preview from The Sports Network
Monday, March 31st (All times Eastern)
Chicago Cubs (0-0) at Pittsburgh Pirates (0-0), 1:05 p.m.
Probable Starting Pitchers: Chicago - Jeff Samardzija (0-0, 0.00) Pittsburgh - Francisco Liriano (0-0, 0.00)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Pittsburgh Pirates ended a string of 20 straight losing seasons by posting 92 wins, capturing one of the two National League wild card spots and advancing to the Divisional playoff round a season ago.
Now they'll try to carry that success into this season, as the Pirates begin the 2014 campaign with the opener of a three-game set against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
If the two seasons prior to their first winning campaign since Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield are any indication, Pittsburgh is definitely on the upswing. In 2011, Pittsburgh finished with 72 wins, which was 15 better than the previous year, and the team pushed the .500 mark in 2012, ending with 79 wins.
The Pirates finished 94-68 a year ago and are now shooting for back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 1992-'93.
"(Last) spring, it was just the realization there was a lot of talent here, a lot of young talent, a lot of guys who didn't even know how good they were,'' Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. "As the season went along, you start getting good results, you start feeling better about yourself, then go out there and gain some confidence.
"You just reaffirm the belief that you are good. That's what happened. We showed glimpses early on, and then there was a point in the season where we showed up at the field and we expected to win.''
Bonds will actually be in attendance at PNC, as he will present Andrew McCutchen with the NL MVP award. Jim Leyland will also be there to give Clint Hurdle his NL Manager of the Year award.
McCutchen's numbers may have been down from 2012, but he captured the NL MVP award after batting .317 with 21 homers, 84 RBI, 97 runs scored and an OPS of .911. Those were all down from his 31HR/96RBI/107RS/.327BA/.953OPS numbers of 2012, proving that he doesn't need monster numbers to take this club far, he just needs a supporting cast.
That cast gets a little stronger this year with the emergence of Starling Marte as a legit leadoff hitter and a more consistent clean-up hitter in Pedro Alvarez. Marte stole 41 bases and had a .343 on-base percentage, while Alvarez led the NL with 36 homers and drove in 100 runs. Both players will have to continue to provide solid offense if Pittsburgh is going anywhere.
Getting the call for the Pirates on Monday will be left-hander Francisco Liriano, who rejuvenated his career last year and ranked third in the National League with a career-best 16 victories along with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts.
The 30-year-old, who was named the NL's Comeback Player of the Year, also tallied 163 strikeouts in 161 innings of work, went 8-2 with a stellar 1.26 ERA following a Pittsburgh loss and was the winning pitcher in the Pirates' 6-2 triumph over Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card Game.
Chicago, meanwhile, finished in fifth place in the NL Central for the fourth straight season. Pitcher Matt Garza and outfielder Alfonso Soriano were jettisoned at the trade deadline and at the end of September, manager Dale Sveum was given his walking papers after just two years on the job.
While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around, his tenure did produce the worst two-year stretch in the organization's long history -- no small feat considering that history includes 105 years and counting without a World Series title.
In steps new manager Rick Renteria, whose reputation of working well with young players was a driving factor in the front office's hiring decision.
This season marks president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer's third year at the helm. The front office continues to embrace a long-term rebuilding model, and for good reason. As such, there were no big-money signings or splashy offseason moves. Instead, the Cubs' focus is on nurturing their young prospects for the future while also trying to sprinkle in some wins now despite an Opening Day payroll of around $87 million, the club's lowest figure since 2005.
Although the win-right-now part of that equation will be a pretty big challenge for this Cubs team bereft of talent, the front office remains steadfast in its approach to contend beyond 2014.
One of those players the Cubs hope to lock up long term will be on the hill Monday in right-hander Jeff Samardzija. He has declined their attempts, though, and was the subject of trade rumors most of the winter following a season that saw him go 8-13 with a 4.34 earned run average in 33 starts.
Samardzija's 2013 season started with him scattering two hits over eight scoreless innings in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh was 12-7 against the Cubs last season.
03/31 10:22:38 ET