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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

  • Sun Bowl: Duke vs. Arizona State

    Saturday at 2:00 pm on WRAL-TV

  • CBB: Louisiana Tech at NC State

    Tuesday at 7:00 pm on WRAL-FM

Scoreboard
Local
Final
CAR 17
CLE 13
1st Intermission
NYR 1
CAR 0
 
Final
TOR 118
NYK 108
Final
CLE 105
MEM 91
4th
MIA 74
BOS 61
 
4th
BRK 85
DET 80
 
3rd
SAC 81
LAL 80
 
4th
ORL 60
PHI 67
 
4th
WAS 73
PHO 81
 
2nd
MIN 34
IND 45
 
2nd
OKC 44
NOP 47
 
Final
UVA 76
HARV 27
Final
BGU 68
FERST 82
 
Final
ARMY 72
MAINE 69
 
Final
QUIN 60
ORST 52
Final
CLST 69
USF 65
 
Final
CARK 55
CCAR 72
 
Final
UWGB 66
ARKLR 46
 
Final
RAD 74
CORN 61
 
Final
UNT 62
CREI 58
Final
CAN 67
HC 48
 
Final
USB 67
GHND 52
 
Final
OKST 64
MD 73
Final
WINT 100
REIN 72
 
Final
UGST 68
SMISS 55
Final
NEOM 77
TXPA 72
 
Final
STLU 58
VERM 55
 
Final
UNCA 62
WCU 66
 
Final
EVAN 81
ALAST 63
 
Final
HART 82
FIU 69
 
Final
VALPO 82
GOSHEN 55
 
Final
LIP 69
PEAY 63
 
Final
DEN 46
BRY 48
 
Final
MONT 62
SD 67
 
Final
MTST 65
TENST 47
Final
SAMF 64
LAMON 50
 
Final
SCAR 78
COKR 52
 
Final
HAMP 75
NARZ 66
 
Final
SDU 71
SDCHR 61
 
Final
BC 71
USC 75
 
Final
NICST 64
TROY 65
 
Final
BRAD 47
UCI 55
 
2nd
UGA 65
SHU 40
 
2nd
ALA 43
APP 45
 
Half
KSU 23
NDST 21
 
Half
WASU 42
SJST 27
 
9:00pm Tonight
UTEP
ALCOR
 
10:00pm Tonight
SEAT
SACST
 
2nd Intermission
DET 0
COL 0
 
2nd Intermission
EDM 5
DAL 3
 
1st Intermission
BOS 1
BUF 0
 
1st Intermission
NYR 1
CAR 0
 
1st Intermission
CHI 2
TOR 0
 
9:00pm Tonight
WIN
PHI
Final
NOS 14
ATL 30
Final
HOU 25
BAL 13
Final
CAR 17
CLE 13
Final
CHI 14
DET 20
Final
TAM 3
GBP 20
Final
PIT 20
KAN 12
Final
MIA 37
MIN 35
Final
NYJ 16
NEP 17
Final
STL 27
NYG 37
 
Final
OAK 26
BUF 24
 
Final
DAL 42
IND 7
 
8:30pm Tonight
ARI
SEA