Cubs have struggling Carlos Marmol on a short leash
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com April 1, 2013 9:28PM
Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa (11) celebrates with catcher catcher Welington Castillo (53) after getting the final out of a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opening day baseball game Monday in Pittsburgh. | Gene J. Puskar~AP
Updated: May 3, 2013 6:29AM
PITTSBURGH — The Cubs spent eight innings on Opening Day showcasing what they consider their future.
They spent the final inning showing little tolerance for a player who might soon be part of their past.
For a club in transition for more than a year, no game might have underscored that process better than a 3-1 victory Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates — with manager Dale Sveum yanking shaky closer Carlos Marmol in the ninth after just four batters to preserve the “W” for the Cubs and dominant starter Jeff Samardzija.
The days of patience are clearly over when it comes to the closer the Cubs tried to trade during the off-season, especially now that they’ve signed former Japanese All-Star closer Kyuji Fujikawa — who got the final out with just two pitches for his first major-league save.
Marmol still is the closer, Sveum asserted after the game. “We’re not making any changes or anything like that,” he said. “He just didn’t have it today.”
And the next time he doesn’t have it, you’ll see the same thing, Sveum said. “Yeah, if I have the weapons to get out of it.”
It’s a new way of thinking about Marmol, if not an overall new sense of urgency Sveum plans to apply in his second year on the job.
“He wants to win,” said pitcher Edwin Jackson, who starts Game 2 on Wednesday. “If you’re going strong, he’ll keep you out there. If not, he’ll go to whoever he has to go through to get the job done.”
Specifically, Sveum wasn’t about to let Monday’s game get away from Samardzija after the guy the Cubs consider their emerging ace pitched two-hit ball for eight scoreless innings.
But the team win and the Opening Day tone were the bigger stakes involved.
“Last year we were kind of in the same situation and lost the game,” Sveum said of that opener against Washington in which Kerry Wood blew the lead with three consecutive walks in the eighth and Marmol surrendered the go-ahead run in the ninth.
“It’s very important to get off to a good start — and win Game 1 on the road as well.”
Players talked all spring about the importance of starting strong to avoid the kind of trading deadline selloff that gutted last year’s team and set into motion the dispiriting two-month spiral to a 101-loss finish.
That’s a lot easier said than done considering injuries, a talent gap on the roster, a gauntlet of contenders on the early schedule, and a century of inertia.
And even a good start doesn’t guarantee the front office won’t blow up the roster at the deadline. Team president Theo Epstein said before Monday’s game that that decision isn’t as much about sheer record and standings as much as “a realistic assessment” of how the team looks in relation to a playoff race, the quality of its performance and its health.
“But a good start is important for many reasons,” he said. “One is we haven’t had good starts around here as a rule. A good start can create momentum in and of itself that maybe transcends where it puts you in the standings, because there’s a confidence that builds. Players start to get a sense of destiny, and those close games can really start to go your way when you believe.”
Maybe that has something to do with the urgency Monday. It certainly had players taking notice.
It left Marmol “surprised” when — after hitting a batter, giving up a steal and an RBI single, then walking another — Sveum took the ball from him.
Left-hander James Russell came on to get switch-hitting Neil Walker before Fujikawa coolly got three-time All-Star Russell Martin on a pop to center in his first big-league appearance.
“I’m always prepared to pitch in any situation in the bullpen,” said Fujikawa, through his interpreter — adding that he’s not eyeing Marmol’s job but seems to know anything is possible.
“It’s one of the most difficult positions to pitch in,’’ he said of the closer job. “And I always have to be ready if that time comes.”
Marmol, whose agent has been told the club will trade him if it can get the deal it wants, knows his time, on the other hand, could be ticking away in Chicago. But he’s not going down without a fight.
“The good thing is we won today,” Marmol said. “I feel great. I feel confident. One bad day. Happens [to be] the first day. … It happened. Now I’ll get ready for Wednesday.”