Apr. 8—The first game with fans back at PNC Park was an emotional day for Derek Shelton, who spent his first season as Pittsburgh Pirates manager playing in an empty ballpark on the way to the worst record in baseball.
So, Shelton’s heart got pumping when the crowd came to life in the eighth inning of the home opener, first for raucous reception over the hometown debut of Mars product David Bednar and then when the Pirates loaded the bases and had a chance to beat the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs countered by bringing in closer Craig Kimbrel, who promptly struck out both Dustin Fowler and pinch hitter Wilmer Difo to escape the eighth and spoil the home opener. Where the Pirates went down swinging, the Cubs cranked three home runs on their way to a 4-2 victory before a covid-19 capacity crowd of 7,749 Thursday afternoon.
“It was great to be back in this ballpark with fans,” Shelton said. “I think our fans realize that we’re building something here and that it’s going to be a journey.”
The Cubs got home runs from Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo, which accounted for all of their runs as they handed the Pirates (1-6) their sixth consecutive loss. The Pirates, by contrast, twice failed to put the ball in play with the bases loaded, as starting pitcher Tyler Anderson whiffed for the final out of the second inning and Fowler and Difo went down swinging in the eighth.
“We need contact,” Shelton said. “That’s where we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get contact there, make them at least field the ball. Even if we hit into a double play in both situations, we’re making something happen. That’s one of the areas we have to hit on.”
That was the difference in the game, as the Cubs capitalized on the Pirates’ mistakes. After Anderson struck out Willson Contreras to start the game, Kris Bryant followed with a 419-foot shot to straightaway center for a 1-0 lead.
Anderson fared well after that, getting out of a second-inning jam with no outs and runners on first and second when David Bote grounded into a 5-4-3 double play. Anderson stranded Jake Marisnick at third when he struck out Cubs starter Jake Arrietta to end the inning.
Polanco’s two-out double off the left-field wall in the second was followed by Arrietta walking Jacob Stallings and Dustin Fowler to load the bases. Arrietta, however, returned the favor by getting Anderson to strike out.
The Pirates left 10 on base, stranding runners on first and third and no outs in the third inning when Bryan Reynolds flew out to center, Colin Moran struck out and Phillip Evans popped out to shallow center.
That changed in the fourth, when Gregory Polanco led off with a bloop single to left, reached third on a Stallings single and tied the game at 1-1 on Fowler’s sacrifice fly to right. Adam Frazier singled to right to score Stallings for a 2-1 lead.
“I was just trying to be patient and not trying to do too much,” said Polanco, who entered the game batting just .059 in five games. “Just trying to put a good swing on the ball and not kill it, you know?”
Anderson became the first Pirates pitcher to make it to the sixth inning this season. Problem was, he didn’t make it out of the inning. After getting Javier Baez to chase a low pitch with Anthony Rizzo at first, Anderson said he tried to induce a grounder for a double-play ball in the sixth. Instead, his changeup cut inside and was less than a foot off the ground when Baez showed his power by connecting with a one-handed swing for a two-run homer to the left field bleachers for a 3-2 lead.
“The ball damn near bounced and he kept it fair,” Shelton said. “It was a changeup that, if executed and stays where it’s at, we get a swing and miss or a groundout. It cut on him a little bit and he ended up getting it out inside the foul pole.”
After giving up a single to Joc Pederson, Anderson was pulled. He allowed 10 hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. Only three of those were for extra-base hits but two were home runs.
That trend continued when lefty Sam Howard replaced Kyle Crick with one out in the eighth and Rizzo smacked a first-pitch fastball over the Clemente Wall for his first homer of the season and a 4-2 lead.
Mars alum David Bednar, acquired from San Diego in the Joe Musgrove trade, made his PNC Park debut to a rousing ovation with the speakers blaring Steelers anthem “Renegade” by Styx as he warmed up. With two outs and Baez on third, Bednar got Jake Marisnick to line out to left, where Reynolds made a diving catch to end the inning.
The Pirates tried to focus on the positives, especially after seeing spectators at their home park for the first time since September 2019 and enduring the worst record in baseball before an empty ballpark last year.
“We finally have some fans here. It’s amazing to see the fans back in the stands, cheering for us, showing love,” Polanco said. “Last year was tough for us and for everyone. We’re back with fans, and we’re gonna have fun.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .