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Fresh start? Same old problems arise for Cubs

Published: Monday, March 31, 2014 11:49 p.m. CDT

PITTSBURGH — Erasing the past is easy in spring training, when every player insists he has forgotten about the previous year.

But then comes another opening day, another lesson in futility, and the same old questions arise about the same old problems.

For the Cubs, it was Samardzija vu all over again Monday in a 1-0, 10-inning loss to the Pirates at PNC Park, a chilling reminder that good pitching is meaningless without an offense behind it.

The Cubs went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, knocking out only six hits against Francisco Liriano and four relievers, including four by leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio.

Jeff Samardzija has seen this movie before. He and Travis Wood combined for 43 quality starts last season but wound up with only 17 wins between them.

How can they convince Cubs fans that this year will be different?

“You can only control what you control,” Samardzija said. “We have a bat, too, so we have a say in how it turns out. We need to take advantage of every opportunity we can get. But ultimately we’re out there pitching, and that’s our job.

“We’re not here to speculate. We’re not here to say this or that. We’re pitchers. We’ve got to go out and pitch. These guys are working hard. They’re doing what they can do and we have their backs 100 percent. The quicker we can get them in the dugout, the better chance we have to score some runs.”

There were several culprits to point to in Monday’s loss, though Anthony Rizzo stood out, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and failing to drive home runners from scoring position in the first, sixth and eighth innings.

Starlin Castro, inserted into the No. 3 spot despite missing almost the entire spring with a hamstring injury, was 0-for-3 and failed to make good contact in any at-bat.

This is supposed to be the year Rizzo and Castro step up and prove themselves again, after contributing to the firing of manager Dale Sveum with subpar performances. Like it or not, the onus is on the two core players to stabilize the lineup, which no longer has Alfonso Soriano or David DeJesus to lean on.

“It’s Game 1 of 162,” Rizzo said. “You learn from it and move on.”

What did he learn Monday?

“You’ve got to slow the game down in those situations,” Rizzo said, adding he wants to be in those situations.

Spring training stats usually are meaningless, but Rizzo had a strong spring and hopes it translates into a successful season. There’s no reason to think he can’t match his 2012 numbers, when he combined for 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa and with the Cubs.

The addition of power-hitting rookie third baseman Mike Olt, who was in the No. 5 spot Monday, should benefit Rizzo in the long run. Olt hit five home runs in Arizona to earn a starting spot at third but was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts Monday before being lifted for Luis Valbuena in the ninth.

“There’s definitely a lot of good vibes,” Olt said afterward. “Everyone is excited and we know what we’re going up against. We know we do have the talent in here, so now it’s kind of cool to see everyone jelling together. There are some big things to come.”

The Cubs know there’s little faith in them in Chicago, even from their own marketing department. The team put giant banners of the numbers “1914” and “2014” on the front of Wrigley Field instead of banners featuring photos of their key players, as they had done the past few years.

They’re promoting 100 years of Wrigley Field as the “Party of the Century,” but which Cubs executive will be left wearing the lampshade in October if they lose 100 games?

“Our goal is to go out and surprise some people,” President Theo Epstein said before the first pitch. “I don’t think expectations are that high externally, and we have a tough schedule early, so we can certainly turn the narrative on its head by going out and having a good first month of the season. That’s the goal, starting today.”

Plenty of time to do that, but the “narrative” already has the upper hand.

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©2014 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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