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First win by Cubs ‘quite a relief’ to Rick Renteria

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PITTSBURGH — With a runner on first and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning of another one-run game, a bunt was popped straight up in front of the plate, and the Cubs pitcher and catcher handled it like you might expect if you’ve been watching this team for the last three or four years.

Pedro Strop and John Baker crashed into each other, Baker’s mask flying one direction, Baker going another — straight down.

For a second or two, Baker lay flat on his back, spread eagle.

What else could go wrong this first week of the season in Pittsburgh?

And then Baker grinned.

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said.

Then Strop showed the ump the ball he had caught.

And then the Cubs held on for a 3-2 victory, their first after two extra-inning, walk-off losses to open the season — and just in time for Friday’s home opener against Ryne Sandberg’s Philadelphia Phillies.

“I didn’t think it was going to be such a relief,” first-year manager Rick Renteria said, “but it’s quite a relief.”

Now the North Side gets its first up-close look at its 2014 Cubs.

But exactly who are these guys coming home to Wrigley Field for their opening homestand?

They don’t even seem to know, if you consider Junior Lake spent Thursday’s first inning in a different uniform top than everybody else on the team.

Are they hitters like Emilio Bonifacio, who seems to reach base at will? He’s 11-for-16 with a walk, four stolen bases and three of the four runs scored that haven’t been produced with solo home runs.

Or are they a lineup that can’t get a run in whenever a man gets into scoring position? They were 1-for-27 as a team with runners in scoring position until a 2-for-3 uptick Thursday.

“We’re seeing a lot of guys having actually some pretty good at-bats,” Renteria said. “We’re on the right track.”

Is this a group of hitters capable of mustering only three runs in 26 innings for two games, or can it create and score three ways in the first three innings, like it did Thursday?

“Looks like we’re going to be one-run warriors again as of right now,” said newcomer Jason Hammel, who pitched 6 2/3 impressive innings in his Cubs debut.

If so, is this a team that finally has fixed its bullpen problems of recent seasons — with guys like Strop, Brian Schlitter and Justin Grimm added to the late-inning power options?

Or a team that faces another round of closer issues after watching Jose Veras follow a tepid spring with a rocky Cubs debut and a Carlos Marmol-like blown save in Wednesday night’s 12th inning?

For now, the starting pitching seems to have picked up where it left off before the rotation was gutted at the trade deadline last year. Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Hammel (1-0) combined for 19 innings and just two earned runs allowed (0.95 ERA) in the marathon series.

And the Cubs haven’t even unleashed last year’s All-Star, Travis Wood, who opens the home schedule Friday.

“It’s good to get home,” shortstop Starlin Castro said. “When you have a rough streak or something, you feel like you need to get out of this town. It’ll be better for us to go home, and we’ll be more comfortable.”

Pittsburgh fans already seemed to want to get rid of Bonifacio. When he finally made an out, they cheered.

“I was laughing at that,” said Bonifacio, who was picked up as a free agent when spring training opened. “That was really funny.”

Almost as funny as the Pirates intentionally walking the slap hitter in the 11th inning Wednesday — only the third IBB of his career.

Bonifacio looked at catcher Russell Martin in disbelief when he saw him call for it. “I’m like, really?” Bonifacio said. “Martin said, ‘I know, I could get you out.’ Even the umpire laughed.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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