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updated: 3/31/2014 8:15 PM

Epstein hoping Cubs spring a surprise or two

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  • The Cubs' Emilio Bonifacio is caught in a rundown between third and home by Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon during the eighth inning Monday in Pittsburgh. Bonifacio was tagged out, but not before teammate Starlin Castro advanced to second on the play. The Pirates won 1-0 in ten innings.

      The Cubs' Emilio Bonifacio is caught in a rundown between third and home by Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon during the eighth inning Monday in Pittsburgh. Bonifacio was tagged out, but not before teammate Starlin Castro advanced to second on the play. The Pirates won 1-0 in ten innings.
    Associated Press

  • The Pirates' Neil Walker rounds the bases after hitting the game-winning home run while Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks off the field in the 10th inning of Opening Day in Pittsburgh.

      The Pirates' Neil Walker rounds the bases after hitting the game-winning home run while Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo walks off the field in the 10th inning of Opening Day in Pittsburgh.
    Associated Press

  • The Pirates' Neil Walker (18) is greeted by teammates after hitting a walkoff solo-home run off Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Villanueva during the 10th inning Monday.

      The Pirates' Neil Walker (18) is greeted by teammates after hitting a walkoff solo-home run off Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Villanueva during the 10th inning Monday.
    Associated Press

 
 

PITTSBURGH -- In a city where rain is often the norm, the sun could not have been shining any more brightly Monday at PNC Park.

Cubs President Theo Epstein was in an equally sunny mood before the team he has built went out and lost 1-0 in 10 innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Neil Walker hit a leadoff homer in the bottom of the 10th against Cubs reliever Carlos Villanueva.

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Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija worked 7 scoreless innings, but it was more of the same look for the Cubs' offense, which went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

"We had runners in scoring position quite a few times," said first-year manager Rick Renteria. "I thought we had some good at-bats. We just weren't able to get them in."

This is Year 3 of the Epstein rebuilding plan, and as much as the future looks good, Epstein acknowledged that the here and now matter, too. Of course, he and general manager Jed Hoyer said that on Opening Day the previous two years, and the Cubs went out and lost a combined 197 games.

"I think our goal is to go out and surprise some people," Epstein said. "I don't think expectations are that high externally. 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. So that's the goals starting today."

Renteria made his big-league managerial debut at the top step of the first-base dugout, and his demeanor was more calm than sunny.

"I feel good," Renteria said. "I feel calm. I don't know why, but I do. For me, it's another baseball game."

During the final weekend of spring training, Renteria talked of "reaching for the stars" and winning the World Series. The stars seem out of reach for this bunch of Cubs this year.

Epstein voiced some more realistic expectations.

"Excited to go out and compete," he said. "I think there are plenty of players with upside on this roster. We have some increased flexibility, versatile guys on the roster. We have a chance to have a more dynamic bullpen.

"It's exciting. Opening Day, you look out and feel good about what you have and try to go out and compete. We're looking forward to getting started."

This spring, the Cubs brought top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora to camp as nonroster invitees along with Jorge Soler, who is on the 40-man major-league roster.

Those are the players, along with some young pitchers, the Cubs are counting on in the building plan. After two years, however, many fans have become restless, wondering why the Cubs cannot compete at the major-league level in a major market while still rebuilding.

I asked Epstein if he felt most fans are on board with the plan.

"I think most are, and some aren't," he said. "The ones that aren't, I don't hold it against them. Baseball is best enjoyed that day and watching the team right in front of you play and try to win the game, and we haven't been good enough, judging by that standard, the only standard that matters, wins and losses. We just haven't been good enough. I understand it."

That said, Epstein reiterated he's not wavering from his belief in the plan, or from its implementation.

"It's my job to take a little bit broader view and try to make sure we grow this into a very good organization that can go out and have success year in and year out," he said. "But I think our fans as a whole have been incredible supportive, even the ones who aren't on board. They're still coming out and supporting us and holding us to a high standard, which is a form of support.

"I really look forward to doing some things this season that make them proud. Hopefully we can surprise some people. In the long haul, we want to reward them year in and year out with pennant races and October baseball."

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