PITTSBURGH -- Give Dale Sveum credit for managing Monday's season-opening 3-1 victory over the Pirates the way he did.
Sveum had several good reasons -- and weapons at his disposal -- for yanking closer Carlos Marmol in the bottom of the ninth inning.
First, starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija turned in a performance worthy of a staff ace by working 8 shutout innings of 2-hit ball, and it would have been a shame to ruin it.
Second, the Cubs have talked about how important it is to get off to a good start and not let losses pile up and negativity set in early.
So there went Sveum, removing Marmol for lefty James Russell after Marmol started the ninth by going strikeout, hit batter, RBI single and walk, turning a 3-0 lead into a precarious 3-1 margin.
Russell retired Neil Walker on a flyball to short right. In came Kyuji Fujikawa, and he got Russell Martin on a fly to center.
Game over. Save for Fujikawa, who could be the closer-in-waiting. That seems to be one reason the Cubs signed him out of Japan this off-season anyway.
Naturally, the closer situation came up in Sveum's postgame session.
"Yeah, he's still the closer," Sveum said of Marmol. "I'm not making any changes or anything like that. He just didn't have it today."
But with Russell, Fujikawa and Shawn Camp in the pen, Sveum has the luxury of holding somebody back in case Marmol "doesn't have it" again.
"The situation at hand, whatever happens, whoever's available," Sveum said. "Every inning changes. Every day changes, according to who's available … if I have the weapons to get out of it."
Until the ninth, the game belonged to Samardzija.
He got a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a monster 2-run homer to center field from Anthony Rizzo.
Samardzija gave up a walk to the first batter he faced, and second baseman Brent Lillibridge committed an error, but Samardzija worked out of trouble. Although he had 40 pitches after the first two innings, he economized after that and had total command of his softer stuff.
Sveum said it might have been Samardzija's best-pitched game, and Samardzija picked up on that theme.
"I'd say 'pitched' is a key word here," he said. "I really thought it was one of the best-pitched games I've thrown. I didn't have the best stuff that I had, but I worked both sides of the plate, up and down, and really attacked their hitters with our game plan that me and Welly (catcher Welington Castillo) had from the beginning. It was really nice to have that confidence."
Samardzija clearly is emerging as a team leader. He said he was fully behind Marmol in the ninth inning. For his part, Marmol said he understood what Sveum did.
"It is what it is," he said. "That's what your teammates do. They pick me up, like I can pick them up as a teammate. I was a little surprised. It happened."
Through his translator, Fujikawa was not wading into any potential controversy, no matter how many times he was prompted.
"I'm always prepared to pitch in any situation in the bullpen," he said. "I've been a relief pitcher a long time. It could be with any pitcher pitching in the game. Everybody has to be ready if they're in the bullpen in any situation."
There is a finite limit to the Marmol situation. This is the final year of his contract, and the Cubs would love to unload him in a trade. But if he doesn't work smooth ninth innings, there won't be a market for him.
Until a resolution comes, look for Sveum to handle things the way he did Monday. The Cubs and their fans can live with it. And Marmol will just have to live with it.
•Follow Bruce's Cubs and baseball reports via Twitter@BruceMiles2112, and check out his Chicago's Inside Pitch blog at dailyherald.com.